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How director John Doyle is making a classic sing
As a theatre-maker, Tony-winning director John Doyle isn't afraid to make big changes to suit his vision, whether it's cutting songs or dialogue (Classic Stage Company's Pacific Overtures), having actors play their own instruments (Broadway revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company), or minimizing the production design (the Tony-winning revival of The Color Purple). For his current production of Shakespeare's As You Like It at Classic Stage Company, where he serves as artistic director, he applies all three of those signature tactics. Originally mounted at Long Island's Bay Street Theater over the summer, this swift, 100-minute rendition of the pastoral comedy gets to the heart of the multiple romances forged in the Forest of Arden while tossing away many of its diversions.
"My feeling about Shakespeare is that if he were alive, he would cut his plays himself," says Doyle. "You have to remember, in his time, audiences weren't always listening to the show -- they were eating, drinking, whatever -- so there's a lot of excess. I didn't cut as much of the play as people might think. I took out some of [the jester] Touchstone's speeches because no one can ever make them clear, and I removed the scenes with the foresters because they don't mean lot to most people today. Ultimately, I wanted to keep the whole thing accessible to a modern audience. I even removed the intermission after we had one at Bay Street because I realized the show has no natural break. Now I think the shape of the play feels better."
Doyle has made some additions, too, specifically a few new melodies by composer Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin) to accompany parts of the text. (As You Like It has more song breaks built into the script than any other Shakespeare play.) "I thought it would be nice to have someone well-known write the songs, and even though I didn't know him personally, I just thought Stephen would be a smarter choice for this than other people I have worked with. He said yes immediately and turned out to be a great guy to work with."
Doyle readily admits that the musical interludes fit the talents of his versatile cast -- many of them Broadway veterans -- even though he chose them primarily for their acting chops. "My actors are all storytellers, first and foremost," he says. "But I always think it helps to have musical-oriented actors when you do Shakespeare because of the language. And it's especially true of Americans, who can get intimidated by doing Shakespeare, thinking they need to perfect British accents and such. Here, I was able to make use of the song-and-dance abilities of André De Shields (Touchstone) and Cass Morgan (Audrey) and let them do something vaudevillian. And I let Kyle Scatliffe sing one of Orlando's poems, because I knew how good he was from The Color Purple."
In addition to talent, Doyle also kept his eye on diversity when casting. "I'm not sure people immediately realize it, but we have all these couples who wed in the end, and I wanted the lovers in each one to be a black person and a white person," he says. "Also, there's not a lot in this text (or most Shakespearean plays) about maternal figures, so I wanted to give the older women more opportunities to show that side of their personalities. It's one of the reasons I changed the role of the old servant Adam to Anna and asked Cass to play her. And in having the role of Jacques played by a woman -- specifically Ellen Burstyn -- I could show what a woman has to do to remain strong."
How did Doyle convince the Oscar- and Tony-winning Burstyn to take on the relatively small part? "In 2010, Ellen and I did a movie together called Main Street and we've remained friends ever since," he recalls. "When we were making the film, we talked about doing a show together someday. So when this opportunity arose, I just picked up the phone and, thankfully, she said yes. I wanted her to do this role badly because she is a really wonderful person and a wise, wise woman."
Though Jacques is far from a starring role, Burstyn does get to recite the show's most celebrated speech: "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." "Of course, her 'The Seven Ages of Man' is remarkable," says Doyle. "We've watched her change over the decades, and since she has lived through those ages, it makes her reading of that speech even more special."
Top image: Ellen Burstyn and Hannah Cabell in As You Like It. Photos by Lenny Stucker.