By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“We know that the best, the truest, experience of Cliff Cardinal’s As You Like It, A Radical Retelling is to know as little as possible about it,” says Chris Abraham of the production that will be the first to grace the Nancy Power mainstage in Theatre Network’s stunning new Roxy on 124th St.
The Crow’s Theatre show that lands on the new stage there Thursday arrives from Toronto trailing startled full-house audiences and instant holdovers, strong reactions, spoiler warnings … and a lot of secrets.
The less you know the better: now there’s an arts writer’s challenge. Let’s start with what you can know. It’s the original creation of the award-winning Indigenous playwright/ theatre-maker/ actor/ cultural provocateur Cardinal, best known to Edmonton audiences for his (very) black and funny gut-wrencher of a solo comedy, Huff. And Cardinal’s collaborator is Shakespeare, who brings to the table his glowing mid-period romantic comedy with the breezy title.
“We try to withhold as much information about the content of the experience as we can … including who’s acting in it,” Abraham, Crow’s Theatre artistic director, says of the secrecy surrounding the play the company commissioned. “We only reveal who’s in it on the night of the performance.” The creative team? Don’t ask. The director? Not Abraham, he says. “This’ll become clear when you see the show…. We wanted to give Cliff a true blank slate, total control over his vision, top to bottom.”
“It was our first show back,” says Abraham of Crow’s renegade return to live production in the fall — the only Toronto not-for-profit theatre to take the plunge at the time — under the company banner “surprising, unpredictable, urgent.”
As You Like It, A Radical Retelling would seem to qualify, amply, on all three counts. “When we were planning to relaunch our season, we wanted to do it with something that really stepped into some big questions … about the theatre and our theatre-going practice and our habits, the relationship between a theatre and its audience.”
No surprise that Shakespeare’s name came up. “I have a long experience of directing Shakespeare,” says Abraham, who hasn’t been in Edmonton, theatrically speaking, since his productions of I, Claudia and (Bryony Lavery’s) Frozen at the Citadel a decade and a half ago. “I really was interested in Cliff’s approach to that canonical work in a radical way. So we opened the door for him to freely adapt As You Like It. And he’s done that!”
“What we wanted to invite our audience into was (a new) experience of this writer who’s shaped so much of our discourse around theatre in this country…. I’m a huge admirer of Shakespeare’s humanist scope, his technical virtuosity; he’s one of the great playwriting loves of my life. But he takes up a lot of space on our stages.”
The idea, says Abraham, was “to invite Cliff to challenge the centrality of Shakespeare in our conversation about what theatre actually is.”
Why As You Like It, of all the plays in the canon? For one thing, it’s a comedy, and “Cliff is cut from the cloth of the Fool, the trickster tradition,” he says of Cardinal, the son of the distinguished Canadian actor Tantoo Cardinal. And since As You Like It has “a couple of those wise and natural Fools in it,” this rich Shakespeare comedy seems particularly suited to Cardinal’s muse.
Cardinal, who was born on Pine Ridge Reservation across the border, is drawn to black humour to grapple with big, dark, raw subjects — witness Huff, Stitch, Too Good To Be True (with its family of desperate people).
Shakespeare’s play begins with characters fleeing the court to rejoin others who’ve found a new way to live in the Forest of Arden. “A court in exile: it speaks to a society that’s re-examining the way it functions,” as Abraham says, “so, a lot of thematic threads we felt Cliff would be the right person to draw out in his own lived experience….”
“As You Like It invites the world to reconsider itself in relation to the land, after something has been broken in the city. I think that was the powerful starting point for Cliff.”
Last year’s discoveries of mass unmarked graves on residential school sites — “another layer of awakening of our national consciousness around the legacy of residential schools” — upped the ante too. “It deeply informs how Cliff grapples with Shakespeare’s proposition,” says Abraham. The show, he thinks, is a deep dive into Now.
As a re-opening choice for Crow’s Theatre, the production landed with considerable reverb, Abraham reports. “We immediately extended, twice…. It generated a tremendous amount of conversation in the community … around all the rituals and traditions that have become part of contemporary theatre-going, and the relation to the plays we put in front of an audience. That was our goal: to stimulate a conversation between audience and practitioners about how we do what we do, why we do what we do.”
“Cliff hit the mark in ways we couldn’t have anticipated. And we’re excited for the Roxy to begin a new chapter with (the show), too, and for all the provocations and complications that will be unearthed as a result of it.” The run at the new Roxy is part of a two-year national tour for the production that has already included the high-profile PuSh Festival in Vancouver, (in June it will be at Carrefour in Quebec City, with more dates in the wings).
Says Abraham, this is “an intersection of my interests and the desire to re-open the theatre with something radical,” a provocation about “our cultural addiction to Shakespeare and its complicated reasons, both positive and negative.” A must-see, he thinks, for lovers of Shakespeare, because of “how deftly it grapples with big themes, and how it challenges them as well.”
“We couldn’t have hoped for a more important event for our relaunch,” says Abraham. “We’re so grateful for everything that happened as a result, the conversations we’ve had…. So much fun! The wildest re-opening! We hope that for the Roxy as well.”
As You Like It, A Radical Retelling
Theatre: Crow’s Theatre
Written by: Cliff Cardinal
Starring: Cast will be announced at each performance.
Where: Theatre Network in the new Roxy Theatre
Running: April 26 to May 15
Tickets: theatrenetwork.ca, 780-453-2440