As You Like It Written by William Shakespeare Directed by Des McAnuff Starring Andrea Runge, Ben Carlson, Brent Carver At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ont.
The transformative powers of As You Like It's Forest of Arden are well documented. Upon entering this green world, evil dukes are converted by holy men, bad brothers become kind, girls turn into boys, and fools fall in love.
But perhaps the more impressive transformation to occur in the Forest of Arden of late is the one that Stratford Shakespeare Festival artistic director Des McAnuff's reputation underwent on Monday night.
After a couple of seasons in which his capacity to direct Shakespeare and therefore a classical theatre festival was questioned, McAnuff has silenced any critics who have open minds and hearts by sculpting an absolutely delightful production of As You Like It to kick off the season.
The best thing McAnuff has done in his tenure at Stratford so far, this surrealist, 1920s-themed production is also the most joyous Shakespearean comedy to be seen at the festival in years.
That eminent actors such as Brent Carver and Ben Carlson acquit themselves so well here is no surprise, but McAnuff also gets finely tuned performances from the younger company members and elicits surprising new shades of showmanship from known quantities such as Lucy Peacock and Randy Hughson.
With a hint of Julie Andrews to her, Runge is a charming Rosalind
Perhaps McAnuff's most impressive coup is in taking Andrea Runge, who made nary a ripple in her first season at Stratford, and turning her into a sparkling leading lady (with help, no doubt, from another year in the festival's Birmingham Conservatory). With a hint of Julie Andrews to her, Runge is a charming Rosalind, halfway between girlhood and womanhood, who slowly but surely wins over the audience.
As You Like It opens in Duke Frederick's court, which, in this production's only truly uninspired moment, is modelled after the Third Reich.
After a sudden shift in personality that proves the perils of dressing up like Hitler, Duke Frederick (Tom Rooney) exiles his brother Duke Senior (also Tom Rooney). Next, he banishes his niece Rosalind, then her new crush, Orlando (Paul Nolan), and a whole host of friends and foes follow after them.
It's once we arrive in the Forest of Arden, crisply designed by Debra Hanson, that the wonderful performances begin and never stop.
As the exquisitely melancholy Jaques (dressed in a suit and bowler hat as if he has stepped out of René Magritte's The Son of Man painting), Carver takes a delicate, quiet approach to the celebrated Seven Ages of Man speech. And yet his simple, sad-eyed summary of what it is to live and die as a human is absolutely shattering.
As the urbane fool Touchstone, Carlson gets giggles just standing there looking perturbed by the sounds of bleating sheep. But when, fuelled by his love for a lobotomized maid played by Peacock, he jumps into the onstage band and plays a syncopated solo on a giant, white upright bass, the house exploded with happy laughter. Shakespeare's songs have been given tuneful early swing settings by composer Justin Ellington (who like most of Shakespeare's characters here is the cousin of a Duke) and are beautifully sung throughout.
Dan Chameroy steals a scene from no less a talent than Carlson in a walk-on rustic role when, rejected by Peacock, he dejectedly walks his bicycle-built-for-two off the stage alone.
While the standouts are the established actors, none of the younger company members - Cara Ricketts's Celia, Ian Lake's Silvius or Dalal Badr's Phoebe - lets the show down. And Runge and Nolan have genuine chemistry as Rosalind and Orlando. Their romance has balance to it, too, for once, so you feel they should be together. The key is that in the bizarre gender-bending scenes with Rosalind disguised as the male Ganymede, you're always left wondering if Runge's Rosalind might be less crafty than we think and Nolan's Orlando might be cleverer than he looks.
A few times McAnuff's heavy hand does intrude, whether in unnecessary underscoring or a murder stuck in for pure shock value. But these moments are countered by an abundance of smart directorial decisions on his part, from the judicious placement of two intermissions to the skillful collaboration with his designers on an topsy-turvy world where lowly shepherds and the Greek god Hymen can coexist believably.
The final scenes are so wonderfully festive, all sins are forgiven, as in a comedy they must be. As the show's concluding quartet of marriages takes place, As You Like It's movement from darkness to light is complete. So too at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where, happily, the Bard is back.
As You Like It runs at the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ont., until Oct. 31.