AS YOU LIKE IT by William Shakespeare (Canadian Stage). Runs to September 4 at the High Park Amphitheatre (1837 Bloor West). $30 (in advance), some pwyc available. canadianstage.com. Rating: NN
Unless you pay attention to the sounds of people coughing or shifting in their seats, it can be hard to tell when a drama isn’t working for an audience. When a comedy isn’t working, however, it’s pretty obvious. There’s no response after jokes and gags. And that’s what ends up happening throughout this energetic if misguided production of As You Like It at the Dream in High Park.
Clearly, director Anand Rajaram set out wanting to do something new with this production, which marks the return of Shakespeare in the park after two Bard-free pandemic summers. He announced the casting call for the show on social media platforms, hoping to get as wide a selection of performers as possible. And to an extent he’s succeeded. It’s great to see a range of performers, including some Second City alumni, make their way to the magical forest of Arden.
But the show he’s assembled hasn’t cohered into anything organic, and it’s far from magical. The high-concept designs (more on this later) distract from the storytelling and mar our connection to the characters. If this is someone’s first impression of Shakespeare, I’m not sure they’ll walk away eager to experience more.
Still, I’m all for different interpretations of classic plays. And As You Like It, with its story about warring siblings, banishments, disguises and a group of disparate characters remaking their lives in a bucolic forest seems open enough for different takes. Plus, it’s always an apt choice for an outdoor setting. During the societal changes that have occurred in the past several years, moreover, the idea of creating a new kind of society is also rife with dramatic and thematic relevance.
But much of that is lost in this version, especially with the confusing costume designs by Shadowland Theatre. The sets, also by Shadowland, are suitably enchanting, filled with oversized, colourful plants, evocatively lit by Logan Raju Cracknell; when the opening court scenes change to the forest, it’s like a page turning in a kids’ storybook.
But for some reason, Rajaram has made the dramatis personae not people, but rather plants. I didn’t realize this until I read an interview with him in which he argued that audiences accept cars or toys as characters in Pixar movies. That’s very true, but in both those cases, the characters talk and behave in the manner of those inanimate objects. Why would plants be banished from courts? Why would a female plant pretend to be male to find out what a guy she’s in love with thinks of her without the disguise?
Without knowing the plant-character connection, I felt the costumes were simply distracting. I thought Paolo Santalucia’s Orlando, who’s in love with Rosalind (Bren Eastcott), was perhaps a Christmas elf (blame it on the red and green). And I assumed Rosalind’s golden stamens actually represented a crown.
Even without the confusing costumes, the play’s humour feels laboured and forced. Whether it’s slapstick – running up one staircase to talk to someone while that person runs down another staircase – or mimicking actual Hanna-Barbera cartoons (Eric Woolfe, as Touchstone, is a clever mimic), the gags don’t produce many laughs.
This production isn’t without its charms, however. Maja Ardal plays Eve – a gender-swapped version of the play’s Adam, a loyal servant – and, in a clever bit of speech-swapping, delivers the play’s most famous passage (“All the world’s a stage…”) with dignity, poetry and grace. At the performance I attended, she delivered that speech just as the sun was setting, resulting in a haunting scene.
Leigh Cameron brings clarity and focus to her shepherdess Phebe. Astrid Atherly makes a lively, watchable Celia. And Eastcott handles the lovestruck and mischievous Rosalind’s language and motivation with youthful passion and spontaneity.
It’s music director and composer Belinda Corpuz who delivers the production’s most consistently winning performance, however, punctuating the action with achingly beautiful versions of Shakespeare’s songs, with music by a number of Canadian luminaries. Whenever Corpuz sings, things truly bloom.