Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Shakespeare’s As You Like It . . . BASH’d, and served up retro modern-style?
Director Drew O’Hara has set his new production of As You Like It in the early 1960s, at the birth of second-wave feminism. Shakespeare’s play features an intelligent, plucky heroine, and two characters traditionally portrayed as males will here be performed as women: Lesley Robertson in the role of Touchstone the clown, and Olivia Croft as the melancholy traveller Jaques.
A quirky plot invites imaginative interpretations that reflect current sensibilities. Sibling rivalry, gender-bending duplicity, mystical idealism and romance galore (with ribald humour built in) provide potent fuel for Shakespeare BASH’d’s playful reimagining of this perennially popular pastoral comedy. Whatever mood audience members bring into the performance, chances are, they will leave feeling lighter, diverted, and unburdened of life’s usual stresses. Yet beneath the wit and lighthearted plot lurk darker themes of gender, identity, desire and power that make the commentary and predicaments in As You Like It feel ahead of their time. Reinterpreting traditionally portrayed male roles as and by women broadens context while shining a light on what it means to be a strong woman in a man’s world.
When asked about the play’s relevance against the backdrop of the Sixties, Robertson admits that she tries to keep her mind inside the world of the play as an actor, rather than standing outside of it and thinking about the production: “I do always think there’s value in performing Shakespeare’s plays today because the themes and characters are universal and timeless, and the expression of the ideas is too exquisite to culturally discard.” Croft adds that “there is a feeling of resistance yet freedom during these times that I feel carries a play like As You Like It so effortlessly. A chance to abandon all order, and hope that who you might happen to meet sometime will return. Or tag along.” As for the Sixties specifically? Well, “why not?!” asks Robertson rhetorically: ”As You Like It is a joyful story about finding love and freedom, and that feels right in a 1960’s setting. There are also lots of songs in the play, and the 60s offers lots of great musical sounds.” To this end, local actor-musicians Kaleb Horn and Hilary Adams have composed an original score to Shakespeare’s lyrics.
The play begins with brothers Oliver (Aubree Erickson) and Orlando (Justin Mullen), whose father has recently died. Orlando claims his brothers have inherited more of their father’s estate than he has, and determines to fight for his fortune with a wrestler, Charles (Jonny Thomson). At this time, Rosalind (Hallie Seline), the daughter of the banished Duke Senior (Daniel Briere), enters with her cousin and close friend, Celia (Jade Douris). Rosalind and Orlando lock eyes and fall in love at first sight. Rosalind and Celia head into the Forest of Arden with Touchstone, and the two women disguise themselves – Rosalind as Ganymede, a boy, and Celia as a woman, Aliena – and then Rosalind sets out to find her father. The three learn that Orlando and his servant Adam (Cara Pantalone) have also fled the court to escape Oliver. Although thrilled, Rosalind quickly realizes the pickle she is in: the love-sick Orlando does not recognize her disguised as Ganymede.
Not to worry. The complications will be resolved with a satisfying, happily-ever-after ending that is, well, as we would like it. Like the audience, the characters enter the forest in one state, and come out in another, for Arden is more source of renewal than actual locale. According to Croft, Adren is “a fleeting place, where reason is not important”. Robertson adds that in Arden, people can transform themselves and be whoever they want to be: ”It’s a magical place, free from the confines of society. Kind of like the freedom children experience playing a good game of ‘make believe’.”
As for Robertson’s and Croft’s characters, they are distinct, yet complementary. Touchstone is a clown in Rosalind’s father’s dukedom, who is armed with witticism rooted in wisdom. The gender of her love interest Audrey, played by Jonny Thomson, has also been swapped, making for an intriguing love and power dynamic. Robertson’s preparation for the role has been mostly intellectual. She methodically researches the pronunciation and meaning of all her words – even ones that she believes she already understands – in order to “thoroughly and accurately decode the multiple meanings of the text”. Thus prepared, she comes to the rehearsal room “free to play and discover my objectives, tactics, and relationships with other characters” – and also to explore the physicality and emotions of her character. And these she recognizes in herself: “I’d say that I was a pretty confident and academically-strong student growing up, so Touchstone’s efforts to prove that she (originally “he”) is intellectually superior reminds me of my childish competitiveness for getting the top grades in school.”
By contrast, Croft’s Jaques is a “reflective, intrusive wanderer, who finds her home amongst all who reside in the Forest of Arden, and it’s such a freeing person to be”. A philosopher, Jaques famously speaks of the “seven ages of man” to Duke Senior. This rumination on the stages of human life is now so familiar that it has entered modern parlance:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
While Touchstone might feel comfortable at centre stage, Jaques is more at home watching from the wings. This is one reason that Croft has had to work to find her character’s core: “There are things that Jaques does in this play that I’m baffled by, and depths of wit that took Bailey (the Associate Director) and I several hours to untangle”. She smiles, “Her thoughts have thoughts. So naturally, she must bestow such wisdom to all (un)willing participants, as any fool would.”
By now, Croft and Robertson are familiar presences to BASH’d audiences. But as they reflect on their various roles with the company to date, they take nothing for granted. Robertson expresses gratitude for the “unexpected privilege” to play “soul-nourishing roles” from a King and three fools: “I’m a character actor and a comedic actor, so the male roles really feed me.” For her part, Croft marvels at how perfectly this “hysterical and talented crew of people” came together to “tell this story and sing the sweet melodies”.
The bottom line? “You’ll have to see the show.”
News You Can Use
What: As You Like It by William Shakespeare; Presented by Shakespeare BASH’d; Music Composed by Kaleb Horn and additional music by Hilary Adams; Associate Director: Bailey Green; Produced by Julia Nish-Lapidus and James Wallis; Designer: Catherine Rainville; Fight Director: Nate Bitton; Directed by Drew O’Hara
Performed by Hilary Adams, Daniel Briere, Michael Chiem, Olivia Croft, Jade Douris, Aubree Erickson, Kaleb Horn, Brittany Kay, Justin Mullen, Cara Pantalone, Lesley Robertson, Hallie Seline, Jonny Thompson
When: April 23 – 28, 2019
Where: Junction City Music Hall, 2907 Dundas St W, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: www.shakespearebashd.com
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019