Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” is a tale of possible and impossible couplings among three elusive passions whose nature is to change and be exchanged unexpectedly. All three – love, life and theater – partake of an element of make-believe. The new Cameri Theater production of the play, directed by Udi Ben-Moshe (his fourth – and best – Shakespeare), sent me home with a big, dumb smile on my face that wasn’t pretense (I saw the same effect on those around me) and was filled with love of life and of the theater.
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It starts with the scenery, a black digital palace (the effect is achieved with the use of column-shaped screens) of the wicked duke, who seized power from his brother, whom he sent into exile. (Set design is by Lili Ben Nachson and video art by Yoav Cohen.) The evil duke now rules with custom-made violence in which everything is reported to his flunkies’ tablets. Every brutal regime seeks to rid itself of whatever threatens it, such as weakness, compassion or love. Accordingly, Rosalind, the daughter of the exiled duke, is expelled, and is joined by the ruler’s daughter, Celia. Also ejected is Orlando, whose brother tries to bring about his downfall.
They all find a haven in the Forest of Arden (the screens morph into trees and autumn leaves cover the stage). Here, a shanti atmosphere prevails in which everyone hangs out and about in fluid white attire. The forest is also home to the simple, innocent and rough people who make it possible for the melancholy Jaques to grasp that life’s essence is love and force, “And so, from hour to hour we ripe and ripe, / And then from hour to hour we rot and rot.”
This play is a 100-minute celebration. It’s a celebration of the Shakespearean text as wittily rendered into Hebrew by Dan Almagor in a kind of verbal slapstick that draws on a linguistic range extending from the Bible to the Palmah. There’s also the visual imagination (of the director, the set designer, the costume designer, Oren Dar – notably the melancholy Jaques’ creative cape – and Hani Vardi’s lighting design) and an idyllic soundtrack that’s threatening when required. And, of course, the actors, as a cohesive, enthusiastic group and as romantic and comic individuals, who are ridiculous and moving by turns.
Fairness obliges me to cite at least the principal players, because this is as much an ensemble piece as it is a display of personal performances. Ohad Shahar plays both the bad and the good duke, but his adult maturity is utterly charming in the role of the good one. Eran Mor is delightfully amusing as a sinister servant with a tablet, and even more in the role of a longhaired hippie in the Forest of Arden. There’s a heartbreaking performance by Yuval Segal as the ardent lover of the shepherd girl Phoebe (the captivating Neta Plotnik); and Nadav Asulin as Touchstone makes good use of Almagor’s singularly pungent Hebrew (and gets a round of applause richly deserved by him and by the translator) as he courts Audrey (the equally captivating Maya Landsman). The veteran actor Ezra Dagan is a warmhearted Adam, and he and all the others fill the stage with cordial life, playing several parts each, and they also sing marvelously.
Ola Shor-Slekter is Rosalind, enchanting and charming in her feminine embodiment and her masculine face, including in the epilogue, in which she volunteers to kiss men of good beards (me, me) in the audience. Udi Rothschild is a very enjoyable Orlando. His voice initially quavered somewhat amid the tension of the premiere, but steadied in the amusements of love as the play progressed toward its happy end (for his character). Dana Meinrath as Celia spoofed “femininity” with a generous comic sense – though she’d do well to tone down the screaming element that steals into her voice, particularly at the start.
Taking the role of melancholy Jaques is the comic actor Shmuel Vilozny, who supplies the tone that places everything in the right proportions, not least in the “Seven Ages of Man” monologue. Vilozny and his cape do wonders with this iconic text, though the repetition of the first line at the end is superfluous. He also cools down the idyllic happy ending with the right dosage in his refusal to celebrate, evoking Malvolio from “Twelfth Night.”
At the conclusion of the premiere, the Cameri Theater conducted a moving theatrical homage in which the flowers for the play’s creators were presented by those who took part in the Cameri’s previous production of “As You Like It,” in 2001, under the direction of Omri Nitzan. (This play has been staged seven times in Israel, four times by the Cameri; it was the Cameri’s first Shakespearean production, in 1955). There was an electrifying moment when the elderly Yosef Carmon, who played Adam in the 2001 production, took to the stage. It illustrated in human terms the truth of the monologue – that “All the world’s a stage” – and reminded us that we should appreciate love, life and the theater before we reach the “Last scene of all, / That ends this strange eventful history, / […] second childishness and mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
So there you have it. A good theater production proves that there is something highly tasteful and enticing to the eye that lovers of life and theater take home with them at the conclusion of the work. And that something is a great deal.
“As You Like It” will be staged on February 24 at 12.00 and 21.00 and February 25 at 18.30 and 21.00 at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv.