January 23, 2020

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Come together

Bard-meets-Beatles production delivers trippy, tuneful blend of pop and pastoral comedy

Shakespeare’s comedy is set in 1960s British Columbia. (Dylan Hewlett)

Shakespeare’s comedy is set in 1960s British Columbia. (Dylan Hewlett)

In Vancouver in 2018, the Bard on the Beach production of As You Like It turned out to be a big hit in its tented beachfront venue on the strength of a simple, brilliant idea by adapter Daryl Cloran: set William Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy in 1960s-era British Columbia, and punctuate the comic-romantic hijinks with music by the Beatles.

Cloran also devised a weird added attraction, kicking off the proceedings with a rip-roaring wrestling match that serves as a shout-out to All-Star Wrestling, as broadcast back in the day on Vancouver television. (It wasn’t all peace and love in B.C. in the ‘60s, folks.)

In this Royal MTC/Citadel Theatre co-production, the grappling kingpin is the ruthless Duke Frederick (Paul Essiembre), a nasty, proto-Vince McMahon in a pinstripe double-breasted suit who has effectively exiled his own brother, Duke Senior (also played by Essiembre), to the wilds of the Okanagan. Senior’s daughter Rosalind (Lindsey Angell) has escaped exile because she happens to be the BFF of Frederick’s only daughter, Celia (Jameela McNeil).

In a reflection of the duelling Duke brothers, the young Orlando (Jeff Irving) is likewise tormented and cheated by his sibling Oliver (Justin Stadnyk), and is ultimately obliged to follow Duke Senior into Okanagan exile. But first, he falls madly in love with Rosalind, who likewise gets pushed from her home by Frederick, compelling her move to the forest, in the company of Celia and the sardonic fool Touchstone (Kayvon Khoshkam). But to protect herself from unwanted attention, Rosalind disguises herself as a man, dubbing herself Ganymede, and maintaining the deception even when she meets her exiled father Duke Senior in the forest.

Paul Essiembre (centre) is a groovy Duke Senior. (Dylan Hewlett)

Paul Essiembre (centre) is a groovy Duke Senior. (Dylan Hewlett)

Many romantic complications ensue, including the snooty Touchstone falling madly in love with uncouth shepherdess Audrey (Jenny McKillop), and another shepherdess Phoebe (Emily Dallas) eschewing the romantic entreaties of lovelorn Silvius (Farren Timoteo) in favour of the beguiling Ganymede/Rosalind. Observing it all from a distance is the melancholic forest-dweller/philosopher Jaques (Sarah Constible).

True to the show’s era, the confluence of Shakespeare, Beatles and pro wrestling is a little trippy, and — for Cloran as director — as risky as juggling chainsaws. It takes a while to acclimate to the show’s diverse elements. Early in the show’s two-and-a-half-hour running time (including an intermission), one gets the queasy feeling of walking into a jukebox musical as conceived by an acid burnout English scholar.

But after a while, it starts to gel.

The sprightly early Beatles tunes such as I Want to Hold Your Hand, She Loves You and I Saw Her Standing There reflect the innocent blush of first love, before some of the later songs — Across the Universe and Helter Skelter — hint at the darker complexities of existence.

A few performances are especially outstanding. Angell would make a fine, flustered Rosalind without the songs. But the way her earthy contralto pleasingly navigates through the Lennon-McCartney songbook feels like a bonus. In the role of Duke Senior, Essiembre delights with the way he layers the cadences of the hippie guru on Shakespearean text.

Farren Timoteo (left) as the lovelorn Silvius. (Dylan Hewlett)

Farren Timoteo (left) as the lovelorn Silvius. (Dylan Hewlett)

We know Winnipeg actor Constible, a veteran of many Shakespeare in the Ruins shows, knows her way around the Bard, so her singing voice proves all the more impressive.

Both Timoteo and Khoshkam share some initial time in the wrestling ring in the opening act, and for the rest of the play, they seem to be in a physical comedy competition to determine who can deliver the most outlandish slapstick. Call it a draw. They — and we — are the winners.

Presumably, the beach theatre in Vancouver added a certain idyllic flavour to the production that is lacking in the hard-top John Hirsch Mainstage. Despite the fact most of the story takes place in the forest, set designer Pam Johnson puts emphasis on high-gloss high-tech trappings, which serves to call attention to the plastic, not-so-fantastic artifice of the woodlands.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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