It’s wonderful. There are holes in it. But it’s still wonderful.
When I first saw director Daryl Cloran’s Beatles-inspired adaptation of As You Like It in its premiere at Bard on the Beach five years ago, I was smitten. Cloran has cut half of Shakespeare’s text and inserted Beatles songs. I thought that was a terrible idea when I first heard about it, but I was quickly won over in the flesh.
For most of the first act of this reworked remount, I was, once again, unabashedly delirious. I kept thinking to myself, “Actors are such transcendent creatures!”
In the story, the power-hungry Dame Frances — she’s usually a duke, but Jennifer Lines is playing the part here — has banished her sister Dame Senior from the court. In Cloran’s telling, the court is Vancouver in the 60s and the Forest of Arden, where Senior and her retinue seek refuge, becomes the Okanagan.
When Dame Frances also banishes Dame Senior’s daughter Rosalind — on threat of death — Rosalind and her beloved cousin Celia (Frances’s daughter) also hightail it in the general direction of the peach orchards. Hearing the news of his brother’s plot to kill him, so does Orlando, a disinherited young courtier, shortly after he and Rosalind have locked google-eyes with one another.
Because this is Shakespeare, Rosalind disguises herself as a youth named Ganymede and, when Ganymede meets Orlando in the Okanagan, he offers to teach Orlando how to cope with the vicissitudes of women.
Oscar Derkx’s Orlando is the stuff of dreams: all innocence, but possessed of precise comic timing — just wait till you see him struggling to find words when he’s first trying to converse with Rosalind. With emotional fearlessness and musical skill, Derkx hurls himself into numbers, including “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. And, in one of the evening’s most extraordinary moments, you can see his Orlando choosing to take the plunge into the sexual unknown of courting the boy/girl Ganymede.
This production is stacked with stellar performances. Playing Adam, Orlando’s faithful and very aged servant, Andrew Wheeler broke my heart with the line, “Let me go with you.” Scott Bellis’s Jaques is a master class in combining comedy with philosophical depth. Jaques, one of Dame Senior’s courtiers, is famously lugubrious — “I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs”; with a delivery so deadpan it’s six feet deep, Bellis unearths a treasure of comic richness in the character’s wet-blanket condescension. And then he turns around and makes the seven-ages-of-man speech — “And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel/And shining morning face …” — into a wise and tender meditation on mortality.
Speaking of mortality, I could watch Ben Elliott perform until the end of my days. Here, he’s playing the shepherd Silvius, one half of the play’s two pairs of rustic couples. This Silvius’s heart is as pure as a dog’s, his delivery as fluent as a poet’s, and his physical comedy — including his line dancing — as surprising and clean as the best clown’s.
Although Andrew McNee is also enormously resourceful — and often very funny — as Touchstone, the fool from Frances’s court, director Cloran has allowed him to be indulgent, inventing so much text that his scenes sometimes veer into sloppiness. There are running gags about a tainted spring, for instance, and Touchstone’s (freshly minted) forgetfulness about names that are neither essential nor clever.
And there are bigger problems elsewhere. Act 1 feels like it wants to end after the cast sings “Let It Be”, but there are three more musical numbers after that and many more minutes of playing time, so Act 1 overstays its welcome. And, although Act 2 moves at a more expeditious pace, a lot of its scenes feature the rustic lovers and, as performed here, that material is less successful. Playing Phoebe opposite Elliott’s Silvius, Alexandra Lainfiesta delivers a performance flattened by its deliberateness. And, although there’s nothing wrong with Emma Slipp’s work as Audrey (Touchstone’s love interest), as written, the character comes across as a condescendingly classist and sexist stereotype. The leavening philosophical darkness of the first half is largely missing in Act 2, which makes it less rewarding. And I missed the central romance so much that, when Orlando returned to the stage, I wrote in my notebook, “The magic just came back.”
I also want to say that I enjoyed the singing chops that Chelsea Rose brings to the evening as Rosalind and, although her comic playing could be more spontaneous, I appreciate her take on Ganymede: she lets the cross-dressing be, without overplaying the cliché of supposedly enormous gender differences.
And, of course, Jennifer Lines is strong as both the strident Dame Frances and the compassionate Dame Senior.
With a proscenium arch of plexiglass panels that change colour in true pop-art style and details that include a hippie VW shaggin’ wagon, Pam Johnson’s set is perfect. And so are Carmen Alatorre’s textured costumes. If you’re old, as I am, you can take extended trips down memory lane in their beads, granny glasses, paisley shirts, and velvet military jackets. You can practically smell the patchouli.
There were bits when I was bored and sections in which I wanted more. But this is still one of the best shows you’re going to see this year.
AS YOU LIKE IT By William Shakespeare. Directed and adapted by Daryl Cloran. On Sunday, June 18. An Bard on the Beach production running in the BMO Mainstage tent until September 30. Tickets and info
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