LENOX -- It became common practice during the second half of the 20th century to see Shakespeare as "our contemporary," to quote the critic Jan Kott. The Peter Hall production of "As You Like It" that played in Boston last season had as much modern melancholy as Elizabethan mirth.
Now that we're in the 21st century, it is refreshing to see a production of the comedy like Shakespeare & Company's, which incorporates the somewhat radical notion that Shakespeare is not our contemporary. By revisiting his intentions, director Eleanor Holdridge implies that you will come away with a solid, entertaining night of theater that, far from being a museum piece, has much to tell us about our world as well as his.
Holdridge has eschewed the shades of gray that many another director finds in the play for good, old-fashioned black and white -- black for the darkness of the politicized court, where men are dastardly and whence the young people flee for their lives, and white for the forest, where men and women are free to be more open and loving. Women can even be men, courtesy of one of Shakespeare's fabulous females, Rosalind.
The whole production takes us in this guileless direction. The characters' outfits change from black at court to white in the forest, although once they're in the country dashes of color enliven their garb -- as well as their dispositions, and in some cases their personalities. Dan McCleary, for example, goes from the surly wrestler Charles at court to the happy-go-lucky shepherd Silvius in the forest, and he brings his customary aplomb to both roles.
So what does such a stark black-and-white production say about our world? It's as if Shakespeare and Holdridge are dramatizing how we are all products of our environment and our peers as much as our inner selves. The same person can be better or worse depending on his or her experiences, and more or less fulfilled depending on what possibilities are allowed. And while the nature vs. nurture debate is nothing new, it still drives much of today's political debate.
The troupe's regulars are in fine form, up and down the cast. Jonathan Epstein's Jaques mixes sweet poetry into his melancholy character's delivery; Kevin G. Coleman has a touch of Larry David as the fool, Touchstone; Jason Asprey makes much of disparate roles; and Ariel Bock is appealing as the lusty Audrey. And the company has imported an admirable new batch of younger lovers -- Michael Milligan as Orlando, Sarah Rafferty as Rosalind, Boston's Anne Gottlieb as her cousin Celia, and Susannah Millonzi as Phebe.
Rafferty's Rosalind is problematic, though. As one of the young people fleeing from the wrath of Duke Frederick into the forest, she hooks up with Orlando but pretends to be a man, Ganymede, to teach Orlando how to pitch woo. Rafferty has the looks and body language of a young Kirstie Alley, but that's a double-edged sword. Her Rosalind is amusing, but not all that interesting as she changes barely a whit from Rosalind to Ganymede. The portrayal may be part of Holdridge's plan to show Rosalind as a woman "break[ing] down the definitions of gender," but onstage the consistency only comes across as one-dimensional acting.
Kris Stone's simple set design -- tiny trees, stuffed animals -- is fanciful, but there could be more to it. Still, there's much to like about this "As You Like It," including Scott Killian's excellent score and Jacqueline Firkins's frisky fashions. All these parts flow easily into an interpetation that bookends very nicely with the sadness of the Hall production. They're like honey and rue.
Ed Siegel can be reached at email@example.com.
As You Like It
Play by William Shakespeare
Directed by: Eleanor Holdridge.
Set, Kris Stone. Costumes, Jacqueline Firkins. Lights, Lap-Chi Chu. Sound and music, Scott Killian.
At Shakespeare & Company, Founders Theatre, through Aug. 29. 413-637-3353