It could have been a stupid gimmick. Instead, it’s transcendent
In this Bard on the Beach production of As You Like It, director Daryl Cloran has excised about half of Shakespeare’s text and replaced it with Beatles songs. Cloran sets his production in British Columbia in the 60s. The court scenes play out in Vancouver and the Forest of Arden becomes the Okanagan. All of these choices work well—sometimes spectacularly so.
In the plot, the nasty Duke Frederick has banished his brother, Duke Senior, who has fled to the Okanagan to hang out with a bunch of other longhaired back-to-the-landers. When Frederick also banishes Senior’s daughter Rosalind, she takes off to the interior, too, along with her cousin Celia and a fool named Touchstone, who carries their luggage.
In another plotline, Orlando’s brother is planning to murder him, so Orlando also hits the road in the general direction of Peachland. Before leaving Vancouver, Orlando and Rosalind have fallen in love so, when their paths cross again, the hills and orchards of the new landscape give them plenty of room to explore where that might lead—even though Rosalind is pretending to be a young man named Ganymede. (Go Shakespeare! Queer it up!)
Let me tell you about Nadeem Phillip, who is playing Orlando. The guy is a fucking genius. He has an amazing capacity to give himself over to whatever role he’s playing. As Orlando, he abandons himself to the intoxication of new love. Just after he’s met Rosalind, Orlando sings, “Do You Want to Know a Secret” while dancing—no, not dancing, floating—around the stage. Phillip can sing and his movement is so damn cool, a combination of shimmies and twisty little steps that feel like organic and inevitable manifestations of joy. Phillip’s charisma is off the charts: he could be a rock star. (Jonathan Hawley Purvis is responsible for the choreography, which works gangbusters throughout.)
Ben Carlson also delivers a stellar performance playing one of Senior’s men, the famously lugubrious Jacques: “I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs.” Wearing a mousey brown wig, dressed by costumer Carmen Alatorre in a brown turtleneck and brown slacks with a bad black belt, Carlson embodies a kind of guy I knew well in the sixties: the depressive but self-aware poet/geek. Carlson scores every laugh by slipping underneath it to grab it and, when he dances, he flails—like all of those guys do.
In a stroke of brilliance, director Cloran has the philosophical but piss-taking Jacques sing “I Am the Walrus”: “I am he as you are he as you are me/And we are all together.”
The gifts keep coming. Kayvon Khoshkam is hilarious as Touchstone. Khoshkam has invented a running gag in which Touchstone is afraid of all of the bees in the Okanagan: “Bee! Bee! Bee!” He takes the mickey out of the character’s romantic jealousy. Koshkam even gets repeated laughs out of the way Touchstone pronounces “Okanagan”.
There are deeper notes in this production, too. When Orlando heads into the woods, he is accompanied by an ancient, faithful servant named Adam. Adam is frail—age and mortality provide a bitter counterpoint to the sweetness of youth and infatuation—and the journey is hard for him. When Adam (Andrew Wheeler) settles into a chair in Senior’s encampment, Jeff Gladstone, who is one of the members of the on-stage band, steps forward to play his guitar and sing “Let It Be”. It’s so moving that I sobbed.
Speaking of musicality, Ben Elliot, who plays a shepherd named Silvius, ornaments “I Saw Her Standing There” with a wicked keyboard solo—as well as some of the best physical business this side of Charlie Chaplin. And, as Phoebe, Silvius’s love interest, Luisa Jojic unleashes a voice in “Something” that’s crazy deep, crazy sexy, and, through some swampy set of couplings, related to Elvis Presley.
Harveen Sandhu, who plays Celia, possesses a voice that’s musical even when she’s speaking, and it’s like a caress when she sings. Sandhu also has an assured, playful way with the text, so I hope we see her at Bard again in the future.
This As You Like It isn’t perfect, of course; it’s too big and ambitious for that. Craig Erickson, who’s playing Orlando’s nasty brother, can’t really sing, but he delivers a solid characterization and he earns some sweet laughs, to that’s not a huge deal.
For me, Lindsey Angell’s Rosalind is a more significant problem. This isn’t because Angell can’t act—she’s one of the best—it’s because of the disappointing direction that she and Cloran have taken the character.
In my experience—so far at least—androgyny is a big part of Rosalind’s appeal. After all, it is her idea to flirt with her lover while she’s pretending to be a guy. But Angell and Cloran blunt Rosalind’s edge by making her a complete femme. Rather than exploring the sexy possibilities of liminal gender, this Rosalind reinforces the binary. When she’s dressed as Ganymede, she makes a big deal out of resorting to stereotypes because she doesn’t know how to walk like a guy. And, when Ganymede assumes a female persona to teach Orlando how to woo, that female is also a cartoon—one who bats her eyes and cocks her hip. These stereotypes distance us from the edgier playfulness in the script, but why go into the Forest of Arden—or to the Okanagan for that matter—if you can’t indulge in a little disruptive play? That’s what they’re there for.
Costumer Alatorre reinforces this production’s conservative take on Rosalind: sartorially, there’s no hint of rebelliousness or uniqueness. In fact, when this Rosalind is still in court in Vancouver, she’s so prim she could be Tricia Nixon.
Everywhere else, though, Alatorre hits grand slams. The stripes, the paisleys, the, the jewelry, the hair, the fringe vests, the wild shoes: it’s a feast with about 25 courses, eight wines, and a huge bong.
The psychedelic lighting is by Gerald King.
Go see this As You Like It. And book now. It’s running in rep until September 22, but it’s going to start selling out—fast.
And, when you go, go early. The warm-up wrestling match starts 15 minutes before show time. You don’t want to miss that. Trust me.
AS YOU LIKE IT by William Shakespeare. Directed by Daryl Cloran. A Bard on the Beach production. In the Mainstage tent at Bard on the Beach on Friday, June 22. Continues in rep until September 22.
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