Gwyneth Goes to Summer School

Gwyneth Paltrow is spending her summer vacation learning how to act. Instead of $10 million a picture in Hollywood, she’s making $500 a week in Massachusetts playing Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the Williamstown Theater Festival. She’s no snob, but there’s no doubt her movie stardom is the biggest lure of the summer in the sold-out engagement that ends Aug. 15.

The production itself, directed by Barry Edelstein, the artistic director of New York’s Classic Stage Company who last season directed Uma Thurman in her first Molière, suggests more time was spent on the sets than the actors. Still, there is nothing boring or conventional about an As You Like It that includes bright green Granny Smith apples falling in a navy blue orchard, characters making entrances from trapdoors in the floor and ladders from the ceiling, music performed in the style of Dave Brubeck by an on-stage progressive jazz quartet, ballroom dancing in the Forest of Arden to Louis Armstrong’s hit song “What a Wonderful World,” and Lea DeLaria as a goatherd. I don’t know what the Bard from Stratford-on-Avon would think, but he wouldn’t yawn.

He might pray for a little less spin and a bit more substance, not to mention a leading lady with more stage experience and a wider range. Rosalind-feisty, lovesick, strong-willed and wise-is one of Shakespeare’s riskiest cross-dressers, but in or out of drag, she needs more than a pretty face and a boyish physique. How can we forget the famous photos of Katharine Hepburn in the role, looking like Peter Pan and inspiring Dorothy Parker’s oft-quoted laceration: “She ran the gamut-from A to B.”

Ms. Paltrow plays it mainly for charm and swagger. As the distraught daughter of a deposed duke living off the hospitality of the wicked uncle who drove her father into exile, Ms. Paltrow makes her first entrance at court looking very much the way she did when she won the Academy Award for Shakespeare in Love , radiant in panels of billowing red satin. Every inch the movie star, she is greeted with applause for bringing glamour to the Berkshires that is loud and understandable. The test is yet to come.

Claiming her independence, disguising herself as a shepherd named Ganymede, and heading for the Forest of Arden in search of romance, freedom, justice and her long-lost father with her cousin Celia in tow, the transition is as abrupt as it is unsurprising. Ms. Paltrow is so flat-chested, the gender change seems effortless, but in knickers, suspenders and workboots, with a trendy baseball cap worn backward, she looks more like a character in the Peanuts comics.

With Shakespeare’s comedy of sibling rivalries and mistaken identities now in full throttle, Rosalind falls for Orlando (Alessandro Nivola), who wears a windbreaker and khakis while plastering love poems on tree trunks with Post-Its, Celia (Megan Dodds) goes for Orlando’s venomous older brother Oliver (Stephen Barker Turner), and Touchstone the court jester (Mark Linn-Baker) pursues the bovine goatherd played by Lea DeLaria in a vulgar burlesque camp that bludgeons the audience with 400 crude vaudeville sight gags when a more carefully chosen half-dozen would do. Amid the ham, some genuine caviar is provided by the excellent Michael Cumptsy’s melancholy Jaques, lord of the forest, and by the gifted and versatile Angelina Phillips as the confused, baby-voiced peasant Phoebe.

Before they all sort out their tangled sexual deceits and find true love, the “All the world’s a stage” speech has been delivered from a horizontal position and the “Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly” lament has been curiously sung as a jaunty jazz tune. When Orlando practices lovemaking on Ganymede, unaware that he is really Rosalind in disguise, there is no requisite sense of apprehension that he might be falling for the wrong sex. The villains pursue the innocents in black tuxedos with fuchsia shirts and vests, perpetually dressed for a Mafia ball. The Forest of Arden looks like a vacant lot in Canarsie. Under these flawed circumstances, I was grateful for Ms. Paltrow’s charm, but Rosalind is so close to the role she played in Shakespeare in Love and her performance is in so much the same vein, full of bounce and posturing, there isn’t much of a stretch to observe. I admire her for wanting to polish her craft like her mother (Blythe Danner is a Williamstown regular) but I wish she had chosen a fresher vehicle with a different kind of challenge.

As You Like It may be a financial blockbuster, but it can’t hold a candle to the brilliant, inspired production earlier in the summer of The Taming of the Shrew . This randy romp, directed by and starring Roger Rees, was a rare example of revisionist Shakespeare with passion, purpose and synergy to spare. Mr. Rees’ libidinous Petruchio crashed through the startled audience as a drunken intruder, raising so much hell the emergency exits were opened and the police summoned before order was restored. Bebe Neuwirth, as a tough lady cop brandishing a phallic nightstick, subdued him and forced him to watch the play, reappearing as Petruchio in his orange soccer shirt, backpack and track shoes in a breakneck series of tableaux in the style of a Vittorio De Sica film starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. Think Marriage Italian-Style with Fellini crowd scenes, sets designed as blowups of pasta boxes and imported cans of Italian tomato sauces, Bianca singing a song by the Carpenters,

bits of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate ad-libbed freely, and a factory of Petruchio’s employees dressed like World War I aviators out of a Monty Python movie.

Bebe Neuwirth was a revelation as the fiery Kate, a lioness even when tamed, always letting you know the play could never happen in the 1990′s. In the end, when she returned as the lady motorcycle cop, Mr. Rees’ drunken spectator was so overwhelmed by what he’d just seen that he vowed to go home and tame his own wife, prompting Ms. Neuwirth to bring down the house with the evening’s final line: “In your dreams, buster.” This, for sure, was a vibrant, streamlined production ready for Broadway.

While long lines of eager theatergoers attuned to the artistic standards of achievement synonymous with Williamstown crowded into the 520-seat main theater this summer to see revivals of Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, the sold-out 96-seat Nikos Stage in an adjoining building has unveiled new, experimental premieres by John Guare, Irish playwright Frank McGuinness and Warren Leight, winner of this year’s Tony Award for Side Man . Mr. Leight’s new play Glimmer Brothers is in some ways better than Side Man , continuing and expanding the theme of relationships among jazz musicians from the big band era and how they affect the lives of their children 40 years later.

David Schwimmer, a popular television icon from the sitcom Friends who has never impressed me, starred with great conviction and honesty as a New York trombone player who has devoted much of his adult life to caring for an elderly trumpet player who was a colleague of his father’s. When the elderly musician is diagnosed with a terminal illness, the young man is forced to reunite the older man with a twin brother from whom he has been estranged for four decades, discovering in the process dark secrets that unlock the mysteries of his own twisted legacy. The ghosts of the past once again encroach on the lives of a younger generation as a riveting play engulfs the viewer with richly detailed characters and shocking revelations. Mr. Schwimmer triumphed as a lonely-boy-lost who is trying to cope in the body of a grown man. The play needs tightening, but it has already been scheduled for a New York production this season at the Roundabout.

The summer began with a gutsy, profound and colorful Camino Real under the juicy direction of Nicholas Martin, with screen star Ethan Hawke giving a tender, lyrical and utterly heartbreaking performance as Kilroy, Tennessee Williams’ all-American boy in hell, and a superb cast that included Blair Brown, Hope Davis and Richard Easton. The first revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun starred Gloria Foster and Kimberly Elise, the incandescent young actress who played Oprah Winfrey’s daughter in the ill-fated film Beloved .

And it’s not over yet. You can still see Arthur Miller’s The Price , directed by James Naughton, from Aug. 18 to Aug. 29, and the world premiere of The Waverly Gallery , directed by Scott Ellis, which runs Aug. 11 to Aug. 22. This is the new play by Kenneth Lonergan, who took New York by storm with This Is Our Youth . His latest stars the great Eileen Heckart as the spirited owner of a Washington Square art gallery who is hellbent on leaving this world with a bang despite her rapid and inconvenient disintegration from Alzheimer’s. You can expect this one on a New York stage soon, but you may have to get up to Williamstown to see the remarkable Eileen Heckart in it.

No wonder this 11-week summer marathon has become a magnet for the most illustrious actors, directors and designers in the American theater. Since I have been driving up to the ivy-covered campus I’ve seen Julie Harris, Christopher Reeve, Richard Thomas, Tammy Grimes, Stockard Channing, Cherry Jones, Joanne Woodward, John Sayles (in an acting role, yet), Kate Burton, Marian Seldes, Olympia Dukakis, Christopher Walken, Sigourney Weaver, Campbell Scott, Stephen Collins, Karen Allen-the list goes on. They use the stages and rehearsal halls as a gym working for less than scale, living in college dorms, polishing their craft. What began 45 years ago as “chic summer stock” has evolved into the East Coast’s leading bastion of civilized theatrical culture. Under the creative guidance of Michael Ritchie, show business glitter has also arrived this year. (I’ve spotted Paul Newman, Meryl Streep and Brooke Shields, and they were just in the audience!) But this is as it should be: the natural result of so many talented, celebrated people pooling their resources to accomplish so much with so little. The annual budget for 10 full-scale productions is only $2 million, sets are assigned for $5,000 and the highest-priced tickets sell for $37. It’s pretty much a goddamn miracle, if you ask me.