AS YOU LIKE IT by William Shakespeare, directed by Antoni Cimolino, with Sara Topham, Dion Johnstone, Stephen Ouimette, Sophie Goulet and Graham Abbey. Presented by the Stratford Festival at the Festival Theatre, Stratford. Runs in rep to October 30. $41.08-$95.13. 1-800-567-1600. Rating: NN Rating: NN
When a director gives a play by the Bard a surprising setting in time or place, I'm always looking for a reason why. How does the choice help to illuminate the play? What new ideas does the staging yield? In the case of Antoni Cimolino 's As You Like It , set in a 60s "summer of love" - the company's phrase - I'm still trying to come up with an answer.
As You is one of Shakespeare's most delightful comedies, a comment on love's various aspects and how sexual and romantic attractions are both blessing and curse. Fleeing to the forest of Arden, the unhappy Rosalind, travelling with her cousin Celia, disguises herself as a boy and finds herself both instructing and wooing Orlando, another exile who's besotted with her.
By play's end, four very different couples are joined by Hymen, the god of marriage.
Cimolino and designer Santo Loquasto use a minimal set, mostly a series of ladders and hanging umbrellas, but dress the company in various 60s fashions - sometimes androgynous, sometimes pop art, sometimes hippy, complete with patched jeans, bellbottoms and Birkenstocks.
The production wouldn't be so disappointing if the performances were better, but Sara Topham 's Rosalind lacks the character's magical richness, her combination of innocence and wisdom. She fails to convince us that she has wisdom to impart to the Orlando of Dion Johnstone , an actor who fares somewhat better than Topham.
Ironically, there's more personality in some of the smaller roles, notably Laura Condlln 's Audrey, Adrienne Gould 's Phebe and Sean Arbuckle 's Oliver.
One problem with the production is that Cimolino seems to have allowed many actors to declaim their lines rather than feel them. That's thankfully not the case with Stephen Ouimette 's Touchstone, a satiric and funny fool who hasn't lost his sense of humanity.
The only one who benefits from the 60s staging is Graham Abbey , whose memorable Jacques - a self-proclaimed melancholic who avoids most society - is here a Vietnam vet, forever fingering his dogtags as a memento of the horrors people can inflict on each other.
Abbey immediately grabs our attention with his energy and his handling of Shakespeare's language. This Jacques, who makes himself the ironic butt of the Seven Ages of Man speech, stands out in the lovechild world of Arden, and it's no surprise that he vacates it at the end of the play.
And the recorded contribution of the Barenaked Ladies ? Their work is pleasant enough, but I can't recommend the production based on their tunes.