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

The clever and irreverent creator/star presents an urgent, angry spin on Shakespeare's gentle comedy of errors

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. 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.


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2 responses to “Review: Cliff Cardinal delivers a radical take on As You Like It”

    For context, I went during the previews, and did not know about the *secret* of the show.
    To be clear, I support what Cliff said on stage.
    His Land Acknowledgment/Monologue is full of anger and emotion and comes from a place of truth.
    I wish the show lots of success. Extend the Run. Tour the Show. Film it and air it on CBC. All good things.
    I wish Cliff, Chris, and Crow’s only the best.
    That being said, I take issue with the marketing of the play.
    For those who didn’t comprehend Glenn’s accurate review, this is not William Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
    This is Cliff Cardinal’s Radical Land Acknowledgment. Zero Shakespeare.
    I don’t understand why Crow’s didn’t just call it what it was, or some other radical title.
    This felt like a betrayal.
    Imagine you bought tickets to a Kanye West concert. You spend months waiting for the show. The months become weeks. The weeks become days. And before you know it, the night of the show has arrived.
    You and your friend get dressed up, go out to dinner, drinks, plan your whole day around the concert.
    You get to the concert, go to your seats — best seats in the house.
    The lights go down.
    Kanye appears on stage and delivers a 90-minute monologue about Black History and slavery.
    And that’s the show.
    I would imagine people would be outraged.
    Imagine being a young person, who just started to love reading and Shakespeare. Sees this show. Begs their parents to take them. The family makes an afternoon out of it. And they are surprised to find Cliff Cardinal’s Radical Land Acknowledgment.
    Imagine being a Residential School Survivor, expecting a Shakespeare show, expecting to support Indigenous art; but instead being confronted with possible traumas.
    No one walked out of the show I went to. I wouldn’t be surprised if some people did.
    My comment isn’t to Cliff or Crow’s. They have their reasons for their choice (perhaps make them public?)
    My comment is to that young theatre artist who thinks this kind of behavior is acceptable.
    To them I say: earning the audience’s trust is sacred, and very difficult to do. When you lose their trust, it is even harder to earn back. Trust your audience and respect them with the truth.

    • I agree with above comment.

      It’s a catfish.

      When you begin with a lie it becomes a dishonest performance.

      I have not worked for a year and this was a significant expense for me and my first night out after having a baby.

      I think crows nest and cliff failed to give any empathy to their patrons. It has been a difficult year. My own mental health has not been great and I was looking forward to a light hearted night out.

      Empathy is a circle.

      It was sad that they did not feel confident in marketing the show as it was. Cliff also tried to shame a patron for leaving the theatre and at one point called out a child who fell asleep not realizing it was a child. It was awkward and seemed like he was looking to shame the audience.

      The company is good about refunds and I felt no shame as cliff tried to make others feel in asking for one.

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