As You Like It/Romeo and Juliet, Park Avenue Armory, NY

Envy, enmity, abuse of power: the first act of As You Like It promises no comedy tonight. The initial gloom of the story, however, feels even darker than usual in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s intermittently engaging 2009 production, which inaugurated the troupe’s five-play, six-week repertory at the Park Avenue Armory’s massive Wade Thompson Drill Hall on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

A joint production of the Armory and Lincoln Center Festival, the evening, directed by Michael Boyd, the RSC’s artistic head, bathes the thrust stage in unyielding bright light for so long that I began to fear the dimmer switch on the tech board was stuck. Given that the set consists chiefly of a door-and-window-outfitted rear wall, which eventually springs opens as ingeniously as a pop-up book, the early lack of variety caused my mind to wander.

My eyes, too, kept darting about, though I was never unhappy to scan the Herculean transformation the Drill Hall has undergone. A convoy of 46 shipping containers from the UK kitted out not only the actors (As You Like It features both doublet-and-hose and Matrix-length leather overcoats) but also the 975-seat space itself. This full-scale replica of the RSC’s main Stratford stage cost $1m, and you see every sou sparkling from the three-level, three-sided seating. The wood doesn’t have the burnished baronial gleam of the Armory’s Tiffany-appointed entrance hallways, but it suggests Stratford splendour.

So much wood also helps conjure the play’s Forest of Arden – which is just as well, as no fake trees punctuate this environment. A great tangle of branches, shaken loose from the person of the fool Touchstone – the shameless scene-stealer Richard Katz – is virtually the only furniture.

Jonjo O’Neill and Katy Stephens, the Orlando and Rosalind, convey a mutual attraction that blazes like the trapdoor fire upon which the exile court roasts its victuals. Forbes Masson, meanwhile, continues the recent run of memorable Jaques interpreters – and makes an equally strong impression as Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, the RSC’s second production (to be followed by King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, and Julius Caesar). Here O’Neill is a boisterously silly Mercutio, his lewd miming the residency’s most vivid moment thus far.

Sam Troughton’s beautifully spoken Romeo and Mariah Gale’s tough-girl Juliet also stick in the memory. As You Like It mixes doublet-and-hose with modern, Matrix-style leather overcoats; Romeo attires the supporting players in traditional garb but the lovers in trainers, T-shirts, hoodies, jeans. Director Rupert Goold doesn’t always know the difference between dynamic and noisy, but the production, even with a gimmicky cop-show ending, mostly works.

The RSC residency has sold well, in spite of the ticket cost ($200 for premium seats). This month’s free Shakespeare in Central Park is a more practical choice, but the RSC offers the polished appeal of “event” theatre.

As You Like It:

Romeo and Juliet:

Lincoln Center

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