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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cross-Dressing for Lesson in Love

The adage says "Save the best till last," and that is just what the folks who organized the British Cultural Festival did.

Cheek by Jowl's all-male version of William Shakespeare's "As You Like It," continuing at the Maly Theater on Friday and Saturday nights, wraps up the festival's three-production theater bill on a high note. It followed "The Man of Mode," a literate diversion by the Out of Joint company, and "The Card," a bubbly musical by the New Shakespeare Company. Under the direction of Declan Donnellan, Cheek by Jowl delivers a performance that is splendid in its best moments -- many of which come bunched after intermission -- and is never less than entertaining.

Topping the list of triumphs is Adrian Lester in the role of Rosalind, the young woman who is banished from court and must hide in the forest disguised as a young man. There, the girl-as-boy takes to curing the unsuspecting Orlando (the on-target Scott Handy) of his love for the "missing" Rosalind by educating him in the whimsicality and shallowness of women.

Tall, lanky and black, Lester is the perfect choice to shatter received notions of how a Shakespearean heroine should look. But more importantly, he is seldom interested in impersonating a woman and always striving to achieve a state of delicate tenderness and emotional arousal. At any rate, he is clearly most effective when avoiding stereotypical female mannerisms and playing the part for its meaning, not for its appearances.

The radical reshaping of the familiar in order to get at essences is what Donnellan hoped to achieve when he cast men as women. But in a recent interview with "TheaterWeek," a New York magazine, the director also acknowledged the danger in such an undertaking.

"Sometimes, drag is very offensive," Donnellan said, "because it takes hackneyed and stereotyped aspects of women and dishes them back up."

In this "As You Like It," the cross-dressing actors are never offensive, although they -- including Lester in a few lapses of weakness -- do occasionally slip into the giggling and eyelash-batting that make up the tritest attributes of the male vision of females. That is most apparent in Simon Coates' often silly interpretation of Rosalind's girlfriend Celia. Crowd-pleasing as he is, his effeminate antics violate Donnellan's efforts to avoid sexual stereotype.

But overall, this is a well-acted and beautifully conceived production that repeatedly musters the power to renew those immortal lines uttered by Jacques, a lord also wandering in exile: "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."

Donnellan has a flair for visual imagery, and he uses Nick Ormerod's minimalist sets and modern costumes well.

Against the empty white box of the stage, the actors stand out starkly, whether dressed in matching black-and-white suits or covered in deep colors. The Arden forest is depicted with elegant simplicity when a few green streamers are dropped from the flies to simulate trees.

Anchored by the strong "As You Like It," the British Cultural Festival has been an unqualified success -- even if the first two entries were rather light fare artistically. It not only brought the fresh breeze of British humor to Moscow, it exposed Russians to a great culture that until recently has been known more through hearsay than experience.

In a society such as Russia's, which always has -- and always will -- put enormous stock in the arts, that is no insignificant detail. The British Council, the organizer of the festival's events, is to be highly commended for its continuing high-quality commitment to using the arts to chip away slowly, but surely, at historical and cultural barriers.

"As You Like It," a production of Cheek by Jowl, plays Friday and Saturday at 7 P.M. at the Maly Theater, 1/6 Teatralnaya Ploshchad, Tel. 923-2621. Running time: 3 hours, 25 minutes. Performances are in English.