Beatles and Bard are a match made in heaven in 1960s-amped As You Like It
By William Shakespeare. Directed by Daryl Cloran. A Bard on the Beach production. At the BMO Mainstage on Friday, June 22. Continues until September 22
Like it? I loved it.
As You Like It is a celebration of love: between nobles Rosalind and Orlando, commoners Silvius and Phoebe, and sometimes both, like court fool Touchstone and country girl Audrey. Director Daryl Cloran sets this production in 1960s Kitsilano, with the “vast Okanagan” filling in for the Forest of Arden, to which various exiled nobles have fled to escape the wrath of the usurping Duke Frederick. The rightful leader, Duke Senior, has parked his flower-power VW van in an orchard, where he hangs out with a band of hippies.
In a risky move that turns out to be a stroke of genius, Cloran jettisons half (half!) of the Bard’s text in favour of Beatles songs. The strategy works because Cloran always uses songs to advance the plot or reveal emotion, and the music creates a showcase for this company’s extraordinary virtuosity.
Watching that virtuosity is a huge part of the joy of this production—like when Ben Elliott’s Silvius runs to the piano in the middle of his athletic performance of “I Saw Her Standing There”, barely catching his breath before banging out a kick-ass solo, or when Nadeem Phillip’s Orlando jumps, twists, and glides all over the stage, confessing his love for Rosalind in “Do You Want to Know a Secret”. Everyone is clearly having so much fun that it’s a thrill just to be invited to the party.
Like the script, the early Beatles songbook is loaded with declarations of affection, and Cloran chooses well. But his choices are even more inspired when it comes to the melancholy Jacques, brilliantly portrayed here by Ben Carlson as the archetypal turtlenecked and bespectacled know-it-all philosophy undergrad. Jacques writes poetry, natch: in this case, the inscrutable lyrics to “I Am the Walrus”. Carlson also gets to sing “The Fool on the Hill”, and his straight-up delivery of Jacques’s famous “seven ages of man” soliloquy is so fresh and revelatory that it took my breath away.
And then there’s Luisa Jojic, whose Phoebe doesn’t appear until after intermission. But what an appearance! Smitten with Ganymede (Rosalind in male disguise), Phoebe breaks into a showstopping “Something”. With her throaty alto, Jojic channels an ungodly mix of Tom Jones, Janis Joplin, and Cher, so transported by lust that she drags Silvius all over the stage while vocalizing a wah-wah guitar solo. It’s magic.
Kayvon Khoshkam invents terrific business for the court fool, Touchstone, whose discomfort in the country is clear every time he spits out the syllables of “Okanagan” or swats away bees. Emma Slipp’s Audrey is a deliciously earthy counterpart. Scott Bellis infuses Duke Senior with hippie flakiness, Lindsey Angell is a sweetly innocent Rosalind, and Harveen Sandhu brings a solid sensibility to her cousin, Celia. Jeff Gladstone is one of the show’s musical anchors (the band, under Elliott’s direction, is made up entirely of cast members), offering a moving “Let It Be” to the frail old servant, Adam (an excellent Andrew Wheeler).
Jonathan Hawley Purvis’s choreography is as playful and joyous as the songs—there’s a wrestling match early in the play, and there’s a cheerful ruthlessness to much of the show’s physicality. And I could have used up my entire word count for this review describing Carmen Alatorre’s costumes, so layered with far-out colours and textures that they risk inducing acid flashbacks for audience members of a certain age.
But you should just go and see them for yourself. Go early—a pre-show wrestling event sets the mood. I had so much fun at As You Like It that I’ll go see it again—if there are any tickets to be had. This one’s a hit.