To lift off the 2010 season, As You Like It, one of Shakespeare’s most performed pastoral comedies was catapulted 320 years into the future, proving—yet again—how timeless the Bard’s work is and always will be (at least until humankind completes its seemingly unstoppable march towards eradication-by-pollution).
If for no other reason than the music (much to the delight of the capacity crowd, composers Justin Ellington and Michael Roth replaced gentle flutes and lutes with a 1920’s jazz band), setting the show in the flapper era seemed an excellent choice.
A curiously draped stage marvellously vanished into the underbelly of Canada’s most versatile performance space to reveal a beautifully “butterflied,” gleaming floor that magically shifted the scene from a despotic court to Arden forest where shepherds herded their goats and sheep even as the exiled gentry culled the deer population. Scenic designer Debra Hanson gave the eye much to savour even as the quartet of lovers wrestled with their inner feelings and outer false fronts.
The one serious reservation in the overall effect comes from director Des McAnuff’s penchant for violence. The first instance is an early-going wrestling match. Youthful, deliberately under-educated Orlando (Paul Nolan) recklessly steps into the ring with the unbeatable Charles (Dan Chameroy) so as to achieve some sort of meaning to his sibling-controlled life or die trying. Fair enough. Under the most excellent tutelage of fight director Daniel Levinson, this brief rumble in the courtyard morphs into the sort of faux battle that enraptured the blood-seeking WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) fans in the throng.
That skirmish in itself could have been accepted as merely topical exuberance, but slipping the Duke Frederick (Tom Rooney) and his opportunistic admirers into Gestapo garb (with foretellingly ominous low pedals accompanying their uniformed appearances) recast the typically ambitious/greedy conniver into a brutal thug. Before you could say “The Sopranos,” punched-out teeth flew through the air and an innocent aide was summarily executed.
The net effect of overly emphasizing the uncaring, tyrannical nature of the power-seeking Duke virtually destroyed his late-inning sudden conversion to religion: “The Duke hath put on a religious life/ And thrown into neglect the pompous court.” It’s the only false note of the remarkably happy ending where weddings abound even as gender bending remains deliciously rampant.
That aside, the opening night performance had a truly marvellous feeling of ensemble and team work. The large troupe not only provided countless moments of side-splitting humour, deft insight and near-universal feel for timing (the opening tableau will, no doubt, find its way ‘ere too long), but they supported one another to such a degree that “the ensemble as star” took on a new meaning. In short: theatre-going at its best.
Andrea Runge’s portrayal of the central character, Rosalind, gained confidence and surety with every scene. In the disguise of Ganymede she set about her wooing-counsel role with aplomb before morphing back to womanhood and delivering the epilogue with savvy style.
Nolan’s Orlando was picture perfect. Whether despatching Charles, dancing up a storm or dashing up and down the Festival Theatre’s staircase, his sense of youthful exuberance and enthusiastic willfull blindness (still, the behind-the-portrait kiss of his intended while still a beard had its intended shock value, yet momentarily spoiled the illusion) were constant pleasures.
The two philosophers were models of understanding and fun. Jaques, the master of melancholy, had an able proponent in Brent Carver who always found fresh ways of bringing such famous speeches as “All the world’s a stage” to new life. Ben Carlson’s Touchstone was nothing short of superb, only topped by his own stand-up bass solo with the on-stage musicians as the celebratory Charleston brought the house down.
The incurably smitten Silvius had a first-rate proponent in Ian Lake, just as his Phoebe (Dala Badr) had to struggle with the reality that the sudden love of her life also wore petticoats beneath his suit. Once again, Lucy Peacock redefined “bawdy,” as her coveted legs finally opened for Touchstone (and their closing became one of several tears-in-your-eyes bits of business that are hallmarks of McAnuff’s zany sense of humour and attention to detail: the “Big Apple” motif most certainly at one with his Broadway stints).
Mike Shara was convincingly evil as Olivier, Orlando’s bad brother whose threats, happily, didn’t require any physical overkill. His instant infatuation with Rosalind’s cousin, Celia (Cara Ricketts at her comic best) was another first-class transition.
From the senior generation came expertly nuanced portrayals of blind devotion (Brian Tee as Adam) and happy in my skin (Randy Hughson as Corin).
For sheep lovers there were copious amounts of hillside bleating (a tad long, losing its “yukability”) and a hilarious (uncomfortable for some; delectable for others ...) moment when a “taxidermied” ewe becomes oddly nervous.
With so much going for it on stage and behind the scenes, make tracks to Stratford and discover if you like it! JWR