by Chris Jones
January 14, 2011
There is no more appealing Shakespearean heroine than Rosalind: a smart, down-to-earth and thoroughly generous gal who not only takes care of her best friend through turbulent political times without regard for her own ego, but through it all retains an infectious optimism about love.
And there is no better Rosalind than Kate Fry, an actress able to play the entire seven ages of women and men without any stretch of credulity, and who invariably encapsulates on stage those very same and very beguiling qualities.
Fry's exceedingly fine work in Gary Griffin's expansive and engrossing new production of “As You Like It” at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater is what you might call an essential performance. Without it, it's hard to imagine this production working so well. But with Fry as its warm, crispy, intermittently insouciant and perpetually irony-free center, this tale of court, forest and romantic disguise proceeds with the kind of rich emotional core that this delicately toned bit of Shakespeare especially needs.
And it comes with a singular quest of the heart in which one becomes wholly invested.
Whether Matt Schwader's Orlando feels wholly worthy of this Rosalind is more questionable. It's a charismatic and exceedingly well-spoken performance, but there's a missing vulnerability, and not enough of the sense that without this particularly unique girl, this boy can't thrive. And thus that one cannot help but feel that head-over-heels Rosalind will eventually see some flaws in her handsome man, even though she'll surely be kind enough to overlook them. Frankly, you want more for her. But then, the Rosalinds of this world rarely get what they deserve.
But when it comes to the relationship between Rosalind and her pal Celia—whom Griffin seems to lightly suggest are, respectively, a kind of Elphaba and Glinda of the Forest of Arden, his production is on very sure ground indeed. Chaon Cross—whose performance is as savvy, sincere and self-effacing as Fry's—seems to genuinely delight in her friend's coming of age. The show lights up with they're both on stage, and flattens a little when they leave. That's not such a bad thing; the play is, to a great extent, written that way.
Griffin and his set designer, Kevin Depinet, have created an elegant production, romantic without being fussy, that is robustly (and sometimes counter-intuitively) costumed by Mara Blumenfeld. Unlike some other recent shows at this theater—where it has felt like the out-of-town leads were working in wholly different style—this production is populated by Chicago-based actors who all feel part of the same aesthetic realm. This does not feel like a show calculated to make a powerful statement or to effect some self-aware deconstruction.
Rather, these Chicagoans craft a clear, kind, unpretentious, accessible and honest spot in the world.
The rustics—played by the likes of Hillary Clemens, Elizabeth Ledo and Steve Haggard—are earthy and humorous, wrought without condescension. The play's revelations and realizations—as when Ross Lehman's deceptively complex Jaques finds, in the moment of the telling, that the last age of man ain't pretty—are all won the old-fashioned, hard way. The misguided characters—such as Jeff Parker's insecure Oliver and Matt DeCaro's Duke Frederick, who looks throughout like he just enacted a tax increase and got a reaction he didn't expect—seem be acting mostly out of fear and uncertainty. You sympathize. You know the types around town. And aside from a very few false notes of over-ripe heartiness, you believe in them all.
By the end of the night (note that it's a full night; cuts are minimal and the epilogue survives, rather charmingly), one is strikingly sorry to see these shadows, and especially this Rosalind, disappear from the trees into the wings. You take some solace in that they are not going very far.
Explore As You Like It and learn more about the production.