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The Stratford Festival’s As You Like It continues to Oct. 22.

David Hou

3 out of 4 stars

Title
As You Like It
Written by
William Shakespeare
Genre
Play
Directed by
Jillian Keiley
Actors
Petrina Bromley, Trish Lindstrom
Venue
Festival Theatre
City
Stratford, Ont.
Year
2016
Runs Until
Saturday, October 22, 2016

You are the title character of As You Like It.

You never really thought of it that way until you visited the Stratford Festival website, looked at the page for director Jillian Keiley's production – and saw YOU in big block letters, taking up more pixels than the rest of the words in the title combined.

Now, arriving at the Festival Theatre, you see why the font choice was fitting for this version, moved to Newfoundland in the 1980s.

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There's a bag of props for you to pick up in the lobby – and, after you enter, you find a bunch of your fellow audience members up on the thrust stage hoofing it to a live roots band playing tunes composed by Great Big Sea's Bob Hallett.

As what Newfoundlanders call a "Come From Away," you need a few moments to warm up to this atmosphere, so you flip through the program. "One of the signatures of Newfoundland culture is that it is not performative but participatory," Keiley writes.

Fair enough – though looking up, you're relieved to see that there are at least some professional actors up on stage, looking great in the 1980s costumes (you love Bretta Gerecke's designs).

Keiley's take is not original in being set in Canada. In Robin Phillips's 1987 production of As You Like It at Stratford, the Forest of Arden seemed to be found in rural Ontario. Richard Monette's 1990 version was set in New France complete with canoes and coureurs de bois.

Is there something particularly Canadian about this comedy, you wonder – perhaps something about Rosalind's and Orlando's escape from urban inequity to the Forest of Arden? Maybe it's the idea that when the going gets tough, the tough get going to the cottage/the country/the chalet/the theatre festival an hour-and-a-half drive out of town.

Keiley finds her resonances in a specifically Newfoundland context. She's thinking about the rediscovery and reclamation of the culture of the province's far-flung communities and outports in the 1980s, after decades of resettlement to bigger towns. Her production treats As You Like It as "an argument to recognize the good of rural living."

When it kicks off properly, you warm quickly to Rosalind (Petrina Bromley, a genuine Newfoundlander) and Celia (Trish Lindstrom). For the first time in your experience, the two central characters feel like genuine cousins with a real female friendship.

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Bromley takes up space like no Rosalind you've seen before – especially in disguise as shepherd Ganymede. Her cross-dressing strikes you as making perfect sense in the gender-bending era of Boy George, while her "gift of the gab" delivery makes the Newfoundland setting seem just right.

Lindstrom, however, makes you laugh more than anyone else in the show as Celia, pulling off feminine physical comedy with style. Keiley provides this character who's normally a sidekick with a real arc – and Lindstrom shows us a Celia who evolves from a privileged princess pretty in pink back in the city to a self-reliant and self-respecting country gal able to mend a fishing net.

Keiley's the first female director to be entrusted with a Shakespeare in the Festival Theatre since 2008 – and her Forest of Arden definitely has a female flavour. Duke Senior is now a Duchess played brightly by Brigit Wilson, while melancholy Jaques is masterfully played by Seana McKenna.

The men folk are a bit more of a mixed bag. Cyrus Lane's Orlando and John Kirkpatrick as Oliver fumble the opening scene with overly eccentric performances. It takes the arrival of the wrestler Charles for the juices to start flowing – Cory O'Brien hilarious as this hammy WWF wannabe, Lane winning you over by throwing him off the thrust with a scissor hold around his neck. If Sanjay Talwar's endlessly gesticulating clown Touchstone becomes tiresome, Brian Tree is truly touching as Orlando's old servant Adam. But then Tree was equally moving in Des McAnuff's 2010 production of the play – and the repeat casting is an unfortunate reminder of how 100-per-cent satisfying that production was.

As for you, you do an okay job of being the Forest of Arden if you do say so yourself – holding up a branch when implored by the goddess of marriage Hymen (Robin Hutton), here our caller for the evening as if we're all line dancers at the Legion Hall. You get to be the forest and the sea, as well, while others in other seats in the theatre use their props to be goats or the stars or a whale.

Pulling out yet another item from your sack of tricks as the clock ticks past 10:30 p.m., however, one of Orlando's lines starts to take on a different tone in your head: "There's no clock in the forest."

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During the final scenes with Bromley at the top of her game, matchmaking Jamie Mac's sadsack, hacky-sacker Silvius with Ijeoma Emesowum's refreshingly smart Phebe, you banish such thoughts.

You run into a friend at the bar after the show. What did you think, the friend asks. "You're either going to love it or you're going to hate it," you say.

As You Like It continues to Oct. 22 (stratfordfestival.ca).

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