Review: Cliff Cardinal delivers a radical take on As You Like It

AS YOU LIKE IT by William Shakespeare, adapted by Cliff Cardinal (Crow’s Theatre, 345 Carlaw). Runs to October 17, Tuesday-Sunday, various 2 and 8 pm. $39.55-$67.80. crowstheatre.com. Rating: NNNN


Going in, it’s best not to know anything about Cliff Cardinal’s particular take on As You Like It, Shakespeare’s gentle comedy currently on at Crow’s Theatre (it’s their season opener). But one thing’s certain: this As You Like It is unlike any other production of the play, past or future. 

So only read on if you don’t mind spoilers.

The setting is not the forest of Arden but the complex, thorny world of Canadian theatre, where for the past few years almost every production has begun with a land acknowledgement – either delivered over the speakers or, more often, by a cast member or two who can personalize the message.

Cliff Cardinal, the clever and irreverent creator and star of shows like Huff and Cliff Cardinal’s CBC Special, is fed up with most land acknowledgements. Cardinal, who is Lakota-Dene and born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, remembers one in which 10 people delivered the acknowledgement – more people than were actually in the show. And he questions the speakers’ motives. Many white theatre artists, he tells us, have asked him after their show what he, as an Indigenous theatre maker, thought of the land acknowledgement. Says Cardinal: “What they really want to hear is, ‘Tell me I’m one of the good ones.'”

This kind of bitter, angry spirit runs throughout the 90 minute show. And why not? Not only have Indigenous people had their lands stolen from them, but their drinking water is polluted, their teachers under-qualified and they have been coping with generations of trauma from the residential school system.

Cardinal addresses each one of these big topics, but also makes us think about more subtle things like: Why are Indigenous people always seen connected to the ecosystem? And why can’t we separate a scientist delivering facts from her cultural identity? Ultimately these all seem connected to colonization.

One of the most audacious moments in the show comes when Cardinal interrupts a story about pollution on reserves to deliver another necessary “acknowledgement” in the not-for-profit theatre world: the reading of a theatre company’s sponsors.

At an hour-and-a-half, the lecture/rant feels a bit too long and rambling, but Cardinal finds ways to sustain the tension. During a segment, Logan Cracknell’s lighting might gradually get more or less intense, for instance. And during a couple of particularly heightened moments, Cardinal breaks into a little run – as if being chased by potential controversy.

Cardinal also does a fine job of modulating his voice. His section on the discovery of more than 5,000 unmarked graves at residential schools is delivered in a quiet, hushed manner – befitting the horror of the subject. And he ends the show on a personal note that offers up some genuine laughs and hope.

This As You Like It comes at an interesting moment. Opening night, September 30, marked Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. And this production itself, complete with red velvet curtain and old-fashioned footlights, marks the gradual return to live, indoor Toronto theatre in more than 18 months.

Cardinal’s bold, frequently brilliant bait and switch experiment challenges us to rethink this art form, to investigate not just things as we like them but difficult things that are necessary to confront if we’re ever to move forward.

@glennsumi

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