By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
True, there are as many ways to century-swap and play dress-up with Shakespeare’s great romantic comedy As You Like It as there are theatre artists, impresarios, and music industry sages to dream them up.
(And the ‘60s have a particularly hypnotizing effect on all of the above. Must be the flowers in the hair, or maybe the bellbottoms, or the idea of a camp-out in the woods. If the van’s a rockin’ don’t come knockin’, etc. My theory: In theatre, camping is always funny).
Still, the idea of pairing Shakespeare at his most genial with the Beatles, a partnership of big-deal heavy-hitters, is a kind of celebrity match-making that makes for classic double-takes. At first. And the opening scene of Daryl Cloran’s larky ‘60s production — a big hit at Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach in 2018 and currently cavorting onstage at the Citadel to a 25-song Beatles score — is like no other. It’s a measure of zany exuberance and unstoppable playfulness that it starts with … live wrestling, choreographed expertly by Jonathan Hawley Purvis. And a live onstage band of rockers, who go in and out of the play, as characters.
Really, you should get to the theatre early, and see for yourself. As a highly comic motormouth announcer in platform boots (Kayvon Khoshkam, who will later turn out to be the court comic Touchstone) is working the crowd, talking the talk. And Charles ‘2 Guns’ Leibowitz (Austin Eckert) is taking on all comers, including an oily ex-matador from Barcelona (Farren Timoteo) and a tag team of Russian twins.
Anyhow, when the show starts, it’s in a wrestling ring (designer: Pam Johnson). And the Act I scene where young Orlando (Jeff Irving) stubbornly challenges the champ (his evil bro has cut him out of their father’s will), he takes a pounding to the strains of She Loves You. It’s in the ring where We Can Work It Out happens too, as a duet between Rosalind (Lindsey Angell) and her cousin/best friend Celia (Jameela McNeil). The evil Duke Frederick, played by Paul Essiembre with a very nasty part in his hair and anger-management issues, banishes Rosalind, and Celia opts to go with her into exile.
At the preview I was kindly allowed to attend, the audience ate up this sassy counter-intuitive placement of songs. As well they loved the moments when the songs seem almost eerily designed for the story. And they were tickled that the exilés, victims of court oppression (the court is symbolized by the martini glass), drop out, turn on, and go back to Nature by gathering in “the forest of Okanagan.”
This is where the good Duke — Essiembre in a double-turn, this time as a slightly dazed career stoner with an inkling that he looks ridiculous — lives out his exile in an orchard of frankly fake fruit trees. There’s a psychedelic VW van in the back where the band hangs out. Johnson’s design, with its triple-frame of translucent tiles like a sort of light-up Rubik’s cube, is consistently amusing. Gerald King’s lighting glows.
Incidentally, there must be something inherently hilarious about the word “Okanagan.” Everyone laughed at every reiteration, me included. Note to aspiring stand-ups: Okanagan is its own laugh line. Ponder, and discuss.
Rosalind and Celia, who have co-opted the jaded urbanite Touchstone for their camping trip into the wilds (mainly to schlepp their luggage), arrive in “the vast Okanagan” in disguise — as Ganymede and his sister Aliena. “He” might be the only person in history (who isn’t a wine rep) to wear a three-piece suit in an orchard (designer: Carmen Alatorre), but no one seems to notice. Anyhow, Rosalind is keen to conceal her feminine identity (You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away) and play improv games with Orlando. She’ll “pretend” to be Rosalind and he’ll pretend to court her.
Why? The more you think about it, the ‘why’ doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in this production. This isn’t an As You Like It that wonders much about testing the irrational ecstasy of love and the mysterious byways of passion. They’re comic givens. And Angell’s Rosalind, while vivacious and smarter than she seems when she’s being giddy with Celia, isn’t a heroine who comes to a new sense of self while dressed as a man. This is more about FUN, the fun of performance.
Fun may, in the end, be a limited rather than a cosmic goal, unencumbered by, say, heartbreak and wonder. But there’s so much of it, fun that is, in the production, and it’s pursued with such single-minded purity of intent, that you can’t help feeling elated.
The muse, to reiterate, is comic, and the performances are cartoon-sized. Revealingly, Jaques, the melancholy forest existentialist, has been transformed by Sharon Constible’s droll, unusually energetic portrait (in startlingly non-melancholic orange tartan pants). Cloran and musical director Ben Elliott give Jaques the wistful Fool on the Hill and the enigmatically whimsical I Am The Eggman.
It’s revealing that Jaques’ famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech about the human track through the world (“All the world’s a stage…”) got a lot of laughs. I’ve never seen that happen. And Jaques’ scenes with Orlando, a droopy, sad-eyed, humourless, perpetually dishevelled character in Irving’s performance, are among the evening’s most amusing.
And what of the bad poetry that As You Like It mocks, when Orlando nails his love sonnets to trees in the, er, orchard? Not to spoil your surprise, I’ll just say the Beatles catalogue steps up on this count.
If Orlando is of the desperate school of unrequited lovers, he is outdone by lovestruck shepherd Silvius in this production. He’s played by Timoteo in a supremely acrobatic portrait of romantic desperation, and he’ll crack you up.
The centrepiece of the evening’s comedy, the m.c. of this cabaret, is Kayvon Khoshkam’s Touchstone. He’s a virtuoso clown in a series of flamboyant Elton John specs, who takes the task at hand to an apotheosis of high-camp engagement with the audience. This flamboyant urbanite, who is not one of the world’s natural campers, virtually levitates in his silver boots. His scenes with the adorable hayseed Audrey (Jenny McKillop), unperturbed by his vast repertoire of upstaging techniques, are a delight: When I’m 64.
The exhilarating sense of discovery and self-discovery isn’t what happens in Cloran’s production; the performances aren’t detailed in that way. What is a bona fide discovery is how appealingly the Beatles canon works as a kind of cabaret of songs about different kinds and intensities of love, As You Like It in comic sketch form.
This hit production, headed for Chicago and Milwaukee next, is certainly ingenious, full of inventive touches, cartoon gestures and pratfalls, and the insight that love is all you need — except maybe dancing, and OK, sunshine. Like its heroine, it’s As You Like It “in a holiday humour.” There’s a lot to like about that.
(12thnight talked to Daryl Cloran about his adaptation, and his hit production, in this 12thnight preview.
As You Like It
Theatre: Citadel, Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre
Directed by: Daryl Cloran
Starring: Lindsey Angell, Jeff Irving, Kayvon Khoshkam, Farren Timoteo, Jenny McKillop, Jameela McNeil, Paul Essiembre, Sarah Constible, Emily Dallas, Justin Stadnyk, Robb Paterson, Austin Eckert, Oscar Derkx, Sharon Crandall, Benjamin Camenzuli
Running: through March 15
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com