Reviewed by Judy Richter
Although artistic director Rick Lombardo has been at the helm of San Jose Repertory Theatre since the start of last season, he's just now directing his first show there -- Shakespeare's "As You Like It." If one were to judge solely by what takes place before intermission, this debut could be deemed an unqualified success, even brilliant at times. However, this impression is dimmed by what takes place in the second half.
Bearing in mind that San Jose is the epicenter of Silicon Valley and all that it stands for, Lombardo has given the play a contemporary setting. Upon going to their seats, members of the audience are greeted by media and scenic designer David Lee Cuthbert's three-part backdrop, each a tall night photo looking into the windows of a high-rise apartment or office building. The title is arrayed across the panels like this: "As U Like It." The "U" is a clue to a Lombardo idea that communication in today's world is often limited to the abbreviations necessitated by the limited nunber of characters in text messages. Likewise, the court of the usurping Duke Frederick (Andy Murray) often relies on indirect rather than face-to-face communications.
The first half of this production sends the banished Orlando (Blake Ellis) and the duke's niece, Rosalind (Anna Bullard), separately into the Forest of Arden. Disguised as a boy, she's accompanied by her beloved cousin, Celia (Cristi Miles), and the court fool, the red-nosed Touchstone, played by Steve Irish, who's outfitted like W.C. Fields. Orlando is accompanied by his faithful old servant, Adam (James Carpenter). Once everyone gets there, most of the action takes place in the camp of the deposed Duke Senior (Murray -- one of several actors playing multiple roles) ) and his followers, who provide food and shelter to Orlando and Adam. By now, winter has fallen (seasonal lighting by Daniel Meeker).
Now come two of the best touches. One is the use of an operatic soprano, Sepideh Moafi as Amiens, to sing Shakespeare's ballads set to music by sound designer Haddon Givens Kime. The other is the melancholy Jacques' (Carpenter again) well-known "All the world's a stage" speech. As Jacques goes through the seven stages of man, he removes his scarf, his jacket, his shirt and finally -- at the seventh stage -- his wig, morphing into the ancient Adam. It's a wonderfully theatrical moment -- most memorable. Also on the plus side is the fight between Orlando and wrestler Charles (Craig Marker), choreographed by Dave Maier..
The second half of the show takes place in spring -- reflected by the photographic backdrops as well as the lighting and B. Modern's colorful costumes -- when the emphasis is on courtship. Orlando, who fell in reciprocated love with Rosalind at court, meets up with the disguised Rosalind, calling herself Ganymede. She insists that he pretend she's Rosalind so he can woo her properly. In the meantime, a lovelorn shepherd, Silvius (Marker), woos shepherdess Phebe (Jeanette Penley), who scorns him. Even the cynical Touchstone falls in love with the somewhat slatternly Audrey (Moafi). And at the end, it's love at first sight for Celia and Oliver (Adam Yazbeck), Orlando's reformed older brother.
One of the problems with this half of the show is that Lombardo directs the shepherd folk to be drawling yokels, almost simpletons, robbing them of most of their dignity. Irish's Touchstone contributes to this impression while losing his own dignity and resorting to tired, bawdy stage business. Another problem is that both he and Bullard's Rosalind say their lines too fast, losing some of their impact. Finally, Penley is too shrill as Phebe, and Bullard needs to be more macho in her male guise..
Still, the first half is so inventive that one holds out great hope for the Rep and Lombardo.