Some slippage is required for comedy. The pratfalls of slapstick, the social mishaps in comedies of manners, even the dramatic ironies that underpin what's called the comedy of menace—these all celebrate the mistake. It's tempting to conclude that we speak of a comedy of errors as if there actually were another sort.
But comedies like Shakespeare's As You Like It walk a certain edge—one similar to that negotiated by the great illusionists—when depicting human error onstage. With both, the acts truly work only when we believe—and when we believe the effect is intentional and the performers (and directors, designers and technicians) are in control. In short, it's amazing—or funny—if we know we're viewing the seamless simulation of an error, not a real one.
Don't get me wrong: PlayMakers Rep's production is no catalog of theatrical mistakes—the kind a critic dings you for while warning audiences away. Instead, director Joseph Haj faithfully enacts Shakespeare's litany of human errors in this romantic tale of love pursued through exile—plus the odd gender shift or two—for Rosalind and Orlando, in an imaginative season opener in the newly renovated Paul Green Theater.
Take the Act 1 scene in which Marianne Miller's Rosalind lets hero Orlando (Derrick Ledbetter) plainly know, after his fight, that he's overthrown more than his enemies; he's conquered her heart as well. In an unscripted reaction, Celia (Alice Whitley), Rosalind's companion since childhood, who has been looking on from the side, glances down in embarrassment and says, "Oh." Instantly, Jimmy Kieffer's admirably robust Touchstone, right beside her, copies the move and says, "Wow."
It's a funny moment; the audience cracks up. The meaning couldn't be plainer—Rosalind's friends think she's just blown it by confessing she's attracted to a guy she's just met. Upon hearing this, Ledbetter's Orlando slips into Sam Peckinpah mode: His face contorts in extreme slow motion as he tries to answer her. Roz looks askance at him for a few moments before Celia and Touchstone drag her away.
Though political exile is generally no laughing matter, the household appliances Rosalind and Celia assemble for their banishment to Arden Forest and Celia's exaggerated moans of exhaustion place a lighter touch upon scenarios depicted more seriously elsewhere in the play.
Elsewhere, the abrupt discovery by Orlando's brother Oliver (Kahlil Gonzalez-Garcia) of Rosalind's counterfeit when she dresses as a man, the disdain Phebe (Kelsey Didion) displays for the unwanted affections of Silvius (John Brummer) moments before she herself falls for the wrong person, Touchstone's mockery of Orlando's love verse and the noble—and prickly—rejoinders of the melancholic Jaques (Scott Ripley)—all are responses to the follies, large-writ and small, of woman and man.
Small issues give us pause in this production. The suspiciously symmetrical "trees" on Peter Ksander's set actually suggest cell phone towers in disguise. Audience members debated the time and setting of this interpretation, pitting Anne Kennedy's ambiguous costumes against variant accents coached by Bonnie Raphael on a stage prominently featuring a chain-link fence. An abrupt blackout before Katie Paxton's spot-lit and over-earnest rendition of a Michael Yionoulis song seemed a slam segue—the other kind of mistake, in short—when compared with what came before. We never fully buy Rosalind's transformation to the male Ganymede—in any production—but we wonder if Haj undercuts the character's authority when directing Miller to briefly play her as a screeching teenybopper upon learning of Orlando's sudden approach in one scene. Still, these flaws, compounded by a script that suddenly solves its central crisis by a too-convenient messenger, don't reduce the achievements of this production.