GARDEN GROVE — Elizabeth Norment doesn't believe in "the sappy view that love conquers all," which the happy endings of Shakespeare's great domestic comedies would appear to suggest.
Yet for the past month--as Beatrice in the Grove Shakespeare Festival's "Much Ado About Nothing"--the actress has been persuading audiences that love can overwhelm one of the Bard's most skeptical, anti-romantic women.
And now as Rosalind in "As You Like It"--which begins tonight at the outdoor Festival Amphitheatre--she is about to portray a woman who not only falls in love at first sight but whose rite of passage from repression and romantic yearning to liberation and marriage makes her the Bard's ideal heroine.
"Everybody gets matched up in both plays, and in that sense there is resolution," Norment says. "But I don't see that there is such a clear-cut happy ending anywhere. I tend to think that even in Shakespeare's lightest comedies there are a lot of ambiguities.
"You have to look at who is matched up with whom. (In 'Much Ado') Hero marries a man who has viciously spurned her. Even Beatrice and Benedick have so much hostile energy between them that you have to wonder how mature that relationship actually is."
Similarly, the multiple match-ups in "As You Like It" during the final scene with Hymen, the god of marriage, are less harmonious than they might seem. While Rosalind's union with Orlando is perfect, Touchstone has no intention of remaining faithful to Audrey, and Phebe clearly is settling for second-best in Silvius.
But there is no question in Norment's mind that coming to the Grove for the back-to-back roles of Beatrice and Rosalind has been a marriage made in heaven for her, particularly after her virtual full-time focus on television in recent years with only snatches of stage work between guest shots on "L.A. Law," "Hooperman," "St. Elsewhere" and TV movies such as "The Final Days."
"It has completely rejuvenated my love for theater," says Norment, a graduate of the Yale School of Drama whose professional career began in 1980 as a founding member of Robert Brustein's American Repertory Theatre. "It has certainly challenged my skills to the max. What Shakespeare's roles give back to you on your investment is just astonishing. The deeper you dig the more there is. You will never hit bottom."
Moreover, she credits her Grove co-star, David Drummond, who plays both Benedick and Orlando, with giving the chance for her to experiment with the sort of physical acting that she rarely gets to do. He is not only "superb as an actor," she says, but his height (6 foot 6) allows her to play aggressively erotic or sweetly demure, whichever the roles demand.
"It's thrilling for me because, as Rosalind says of herself, 'I am more than common tall,' " notes the 5-foot-8 actress. "If I am opposite a man of my height or slightly taller, which is often the case, I would have to modify some of the things we do."
During "Much Ado," for instance, Norment and Drummond turned their first passionate kiss--a long-awaited moment for Beatrice and Benedick--into a highly charged, bodily embrace. "He lifted me up, and I had my arms around his neck \o7 and \f7 my legs twined around his hips," Norment recalls. "It was very erotic, and it just wouldn't have been an option with a smaller man."
By the same token, there are moments in "As You Like It" when Norment jumps on Drummond's back or sits on his lap confident that he has the strength to bear her weight. That security enables her to play \o7 mignon, \f7 as the French say for \o7 delicate \f7 and \o7 tiny.\f7
"\o7 Mignon\f7 has not been the theme of my life, so it's a pleasant change," says Norment. "No matter how liberated a woman is, sometimes it's nice to feel small or taken care of. When that sense of succumbing is part of the role and can be physicalized with a man as tall and strong as David, it's delightful."
Norment, 37, who lives in Los Angeles with a landscape architect, first came to Southern California from New York in 1983 as an ingenue opposite Peter Ustinov in "Beethoven's Tenth." The play, which Ustinov also wrote, premiered at the Ahmanson Theatre and toured the country before heading to Broadway for a short-lived run.
"I decided not to go back with the show," she recalls, "because there was such an abundance of (television and film) work for me out here."
Norment, a Washington native whose father was an administrator with the CIA, spent her childhood in Japan and Germany and her adolescence in Washington. After attending the University of Chicago for two years, she transferred to Cornell University because of its broader theater program and graduated with a bachelor's degree in English literature.
Following three years of graduate drama training at Yale--from 1976 to 1979--Norment was invited with about half her class to join American Rep, which Brustein created at Harvard University when he was denied tenure as dean of the Yale drama school.