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Hamptons Life

Jul 28, 2017 2:25 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Shakespeare's 'As You Like It' Set In The Jazz Age At Bay Street Theater

Jul 31, 2017 12:51 PM

Set in the Jazz Age—when the women were strong, and the men were gay—Bay Street Theater’s “As You Like It” evokes an age when African-American culture and white middle-class society blended. Rooted in the Harlem Renaissance, gay subculture also flourished. And at the same time, the woman’s suffrage movement had led the way to free-spirited flappers.

In setting Shakespeare’s comedy in this particularly American landscape, director John Doyle transports the narrative into a vernacular all can recognize. “I’m constantly saying to the actors, ‘You’re all Americans.’” Mr. Doyle commented in an interview with The Press. “The jazz helps because it relaxes people into using the language in a way that is closer to who we are.”

Indeed, Mr. Doyle, who is Scottish and studied in America before returning to Britain to work on London’s West End, is one of the most innovative and awarded directors on the American stage. But that does not really reveal much about Mr. Doyle, a man who talks about great ideas in simple ways. In conversation, he fails to offer even a little pretense about himself, or his work, which happens to be highly theatrical, arrestingly so.

As a storyteller, he is best known for his productions of American musicals, often casting the actors as the musicians. In his 2005 Broadway revival of “Sweeney Todd,” for instance, Patti LuPone, as the cannibal pie maker Mrs. Lovett, played the tuba, with other actors on flute, penny whistle, cello and accordion, among other instruments.

For this production, which is a partnership between Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor and off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company, where Mr. Doyle is the artistic director, the 10 actors will also play instruments as tools of storytelling. With the songs set to music by Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked,” “Godspell”), the music of the forest will have a jazzy element to it, expressing the freedom associated with the genre. The jazz era of the 1920s, leading into the ’30s, was also “a time when women—like Greta Garbo—didn’t want to be cute sexy,” Mr. Doyle remarked. “I mean they were very sexy. Like Katharine Hepburn, they wanted to be seen to be strong—like men. I wanted to bring that to the platform.”

To that end, Jacques, a male character who is described as melancholy and possessing of a humorous sadness, is being played by the iconic Ellen Burstyn. In a conversation with Ms. Burstyn, she explained that she took her inspiration from “Marlene Dietrich, who wore the first hat in public. They called her the queen of androgyny. So, I figured that’s what I’m going for. I want to be a creature who is equally balanced—male and female.”

This is entirely to the point of Shakespeare’s play, in which the central character, Rosalind, portrayed by Hannah Cabell, is a woman who dresses like a man in order to function in a man’s world. For the director, “it throws up into the air all of the possibilities of how we see gender. We live in a world today where gender is crossed over in many ways—many, many ways.”

As Orlando, the object of Rosalind’s love, Mr. Doyle has cast Kyle Scatliffe, an African-American actor, and as his vindictive brother, Oliver, Noah Brody, a white actor. The two men, not being of the same color, “puts a different meaning on brotherhood if you like, but it also says to the audience, ‘We’re just pretending here. This is a group of storytellers, telling a story,’” Mr. Doyle said.

“The forest of Arden is a magical place,” Ms. Burstyn said. “It’s a place of creativity and imagination, and that’s where we all need to go—to another dimension, where we’re not just caught up in the day-to-day things that take our attention. We’re transported to another realm, where we have an overview of life.” And what could be more magical than hearing Ellen Burstyn speak Shakespeare’s verse, about the seven ages of man? “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.”

“I want people to come to the theater who were like me, once upon a time,” Mr. Doyle said. “I used to be afraid of William Shakespeare. I thought I wasn’t clever enough. I think a lot of people carry that fear, and so my job is to be one of the people who helps the access.”

As a director, John Doyle continues to redefine classicism. “I don’t want the classics to be seen as only belonging to men … or as foreign. What are the big ideas of humanity? That is how I think of classical work, not ‘Shall we do the 14th production of some old classical play?’”

“As You Like It” will be staged at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor from August 8 through September 3. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 p.m., Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. Matinées will be held on Wednesdays, August 16, August 23 and August 30, and Sundays, August 20, August 27 and September 3, at 2 p.m. Tickets range from $40 to $125. Call 631-725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.

A “pay what you can” performance is Tuesday, August 8, at 7 p.m., with a limited number of tickets available at the box office starting at 11 a.m. Patrons under age 20 may purchase tickets to any performance for $20, and patrons under 30 may purchase tickets for $30, in person or by phone only.

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