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Wednesday, 9 June 2010

By William, I Think He’s Got It!

As You Like It
Directed by Des McAnuff
Designed by Debra Hansen
Featuring Ben Carlson, Brent Carver, Paul Nolan, Lucy Peacock, Cara Ricketts, Tom Rooney, Andrea Runge

The Story: Banished from court by her usurping uncle, Rosalind and her cousin Celia flee to the forest of Arden disguised as a boy and shepherdess. They encounter the rustics who live in the forest and others who have fled the dangerous palace, including Orlando, a young gentleman who has been roughly treated by his older brother and is lovesick for a certain Rosalind. The disguised girl loves him, but does not reveal herself until other love triangles make things a little too complicated to keep up her charade.

Perhaps it is because As You Like It is as close to a musical as you can get in Shakespeare. Perhaps it is that he has figured out how to use the iconic thrust stage to the best advantage at last. Whatever the reason, the much-maligned Des McAnuff seems to have shaken off the specters of his past Bardic attempts and found his way through the Forest of Arden with a unique vision that lasts from start to finish.

There has been much buzz about Debra Hanson’s use of surrealist art in this production, most notably Magritte and Salvador Dali, but it is not only truly beautiful on stage, it is in harmony with the text. The fascist court is not entirely original, but set as it is in the 1920’s between World Wars, there was little other choice to show the rigid political structure of the ‘nobility’. The use of surreal all-seeing-eyes and faceless guards enhances the sense of brutal suffocation at court.

By contrast, the Forest of Arden is dominated by blown-up photographs of moths and butterflies – it fills the stage floor, creating a lush carpet for the forest. Only one tree exists in these woods, but it comes alive with leaves and blooms, and actors double as props as well, portraying living, flowing, bouquets of flowers or forest animals. (There are moments when the beauty of the set eclipses the action on stage – the lioness is so statuesque one may miss the budding romance between Celia and Oliver). That the young lovers of Arden will herald in a new society when they return to court is emphasized by the surreal art, which challenges one to see things as they could be, not in their traditional, strict purpose.

This production is full of beautiful, surprising moments, but not everything flows evenly from one moment to the next, despite its quick pacing. It is almost like watching a handful of excellent, but individual performances, with one or two exceptions.

For instance, while harmony in the story is complemented by the early jazz and ragtime melodies that the band of merry men play and sing within the forest (composed by Justin Ellington) there is at least one sour note in their midst: Brian Tree plays the elderly Adam with much warmth and humour, and so his death is surprising. Although it is in keeping with the text (Adam inexplicably disappears in the second half of the play), it happens in the middle of an up-beat melody and so is robbed of the poignancy that this character deserves. The scene ends with Orlando sprinkling his ashes in the forest while watched by a new father-figure, which is a stroke of brilliance.

The same father-figure (Tom Rooney, doubling as the fanatical Duke Frederick and gentlemanly, exiled Duke Senior) also takes care of Jaques, making sure his collar is turned up against the cold. But this Jaques represents Magritte’s anonymous Man in the Bowler Hat, and as played by Brent Carver, he is ever the pessimist with an umbrella in hand. As the other characters change into lighter colours with the season, Mr. Carver’s Jaques never does, and he is alone in self-imposed darkness as the others are flooded with light and hope. Mr. Carver seems to believe in Jaques’ words, so he nearly convinces the audience of man’s infirmity as he delivers the ‘seven ages of man’ in soft-voiced urgency; his other pronouncements are just as soberly heartfelt.

It is great to see an Orlando, played here by Paul Nolan (far right), not merely play-acting as he talks of love, but responding to an attraction he feels for someone he thinks is a man. Looking entirely befuddled, he is not sure what to make of it, although there are tantalizing moments when he seems to realize “Ganymede” is not all “he” claims to be. Ganymede is in fact Rosalind, played by Andrea Runge (right). As Rosalind should, she hits her stride when in disguise, and her propensity to be too girlish is checked by her cousin Celia, played by Cara Ricketts (whose silent, expressive looks are as much fun to watch as the leads) (right centre).

The other lovers who act foils to Orlando and Rosalind’s love include a starry-eyed, awkward Ian Lake as Silvius, and Dalal Badr as a high and mighty Phoebe. They arrive in one scene on a chaise in the form of a sheep (you know what is coming, then watch with anticipation as it unfolds in all due hilarity). The other couple is Touchstone and Audrey (left): played by Ben Carlson throughout with quick, acid tones (as garrulous as Touchstone is, Mr. Carlson never lets the audience down by losing the text’s meaning) he still shows real affection for Audrey; she is played by an utterly adorable Lucy Peacock with such vacancy one wonders if she is even present. They are perfect opposites and as such are in perfect harmony (especially when the band shows up again).

In fact, of all the lovers on the stage, it was only Mr. Carlson and Ms. Peacock who seemed to really gel; this will get better by season’s end, no doubt. All in all, this was a production I would be happy to see again; it is by far the best Shakespeare Mr. McAnuff has directed so far, giving me high hopes for The Tempest, which he will open later this month.

As You Like It continues in repertory until October 31 at the Festival Theatre.

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