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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at HBO, premieres August 21

By Bill Stevenson

  Cast in

Setting a Shakespeare play in a non-Elizabethan time and place is nothing new. Still, Kenneth Branagh's decision to transport this romantic comedy to 19th-century Japan for HBO is rather jarring. It's interesting in theory, since British merchants did set up mini -empires in the Far East at that time, but the ninjas, Sumo wrestlers, and tatami mats merely distract us from the engaging story.

In his fifth Shakespeare adaptation, Branagh uses a dark color palette and emphasizes the dark side of As You Like It whenever possible. During the opening scenes, in which Duke Senior (Brian Blessed) is banished, danger lurks everywhere-a feeling that's underscored by the dim lighting. Duke Ferdinand (also Blessed) is downright scary. In fact, it doesn't feel like a comedy at all for the first half hour or so.

Fortunately, things lighten up once the action shifts to the Forest of Arden. Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard, known for her film roles and for being Ron Howard's daughter) disguises herself as a man and roams the woods with her cousin and best pal Celia (British actress Romola Garai). Despite her tomboy disguise, Rosalind can't resist the charms of Orlando (Nigerian actor David Oyelowo). Witty Touchstone (Alfred Molina) provides comic relief, while melancholic Jaques (Kevin Kline) waxes philosophical and gets the best speeches (All the world's a stage etc.).

Surprisingly, considering Kline's extensive Shakespeare resume, he's not an ideal Jacques. Alternately brooding and giddy, he seems almost bipolar. Faring best is Molina, who deftly steals his scenes with apparent lack of effort. As Orlando's bloodthirsty brother Oliver, Adrian Lester is always compelling, making Shakespeare's language crystal clear and poetic. Oyelowo is a charismatic leading man, Howard makes a winning Rosalind, and Garai is terrific as her confidant. While the early scenes focus on the male characters, Branagh lets his heroines shine in the forest scenes, when the Japanese setting is less noticeable.

Despite its unexpected location and generally dark mood, this As You Like It eventually delivers the requisite romance, along with a few laughs, as the characters, story, and gorgeous language take over. In the end, as it should be, Shakespeare's unrivaled way with words upstages Branagh's high-concept interpretation


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