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article imageReview: Toronto's High Park is the perfect setting for 'As You Like It' Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Jul 5, 2014 in Entertainment
Toronto - Canadian Stage's annual Shakespeare in High Park has become a respected Toronto summer tradition, and this year, the Bard's pastoral comedy “As You Like It” is a fine match for the High Park Amphitheatre's outdoor setting and young audiences.
A light story of romance, brotherly squabbles and simple country pleasures, this 1599 play is one of Shakespeare's easiest to understand for modern theatregoers, with more than half the text in colloquial prose. It's also one of his most musical ones, rife with songs with familiar lyrics like “Blow, blow, thou winter wind,” and “It was a lover and his lass.” While not generally ranked among the playwright's greatest works, As You Like It feels surprisingly contemporary when done by a cast having as much fun as CanStage's.
Leading the cast of this production, which opened on Thursday, are Amy Rutherford and Alexander Plouffe, both excellent as Rosalind and Orlando, who fall in love at a wrestling match in their French duchy, but soon find themselves exiled from the court by their respective masters. Rosalind's father, Duke Senior (Beau Dixon), has been usurped and banished to the countryside by his younger brother, Duke Frederick (Omar Alex Khan), while Orlando also flees to the Forest of Arden to escape the wrath of his own brother, Oliver (played as a bit of a suck, by James Graham).
After Frederick banishes Rosalind too, she disguises herself as a man, Ganymede, and sets out for Arden in the company of Frederick's daughter, Celia (Chala Hunter), and obligatory clown Touchstone (Sean Dixon). There, Rosalind catches up to the lovestruck but bashful Orlando and, as Ganymede, coaches Orlando in the ways of wooing by “posing” as Rosalind. Along the way, Touchstone falls for a rugged country lass, Audrey (Shauna Black), and complications ensue when the city expats meet shepherd Silvius (also Khan), in unrequited love with the headstrong Phebe (Gwenlyn Cumyn) – who falls in love instantly with Ganymede.
Director Nigel Shawn Williams, a multiple Dora-winning actor and the Co-Artistic Director of Factory Theatre, supposedly had 1950s France in mind as the setting of this production, but the Arden scenes sometimes remind you more of a '60s commune, with Shakespeare's lyrics sung to hippie-style guitar folk music. (Touchstone gets a banjo instead, and he has a funny scene in which he mocks Orlando's love poems with banjo accompaniment.) Lindsay Anne Black's costumes are distinctly modern dress, but without any noticeable consistent theme; Oliver's shirt/jacket combo brings Miami Vice to mind for some reason, while Touchstone trades in his motley for a Cosby sweater and Rosalind's “Ganymede” disguise consists of jeans, a denim jacket and her hair put up in a weird Elvissy look.
Other than cuts to keep the show to ninety minutes, Williams doesn't make any extreme additions or changes to the play, but he throws in a few good bits of comedic business. During the scene in which Rosalind, Celia and Touchstone arrive in the countryside, the clown gets stuck with all the bags after the ladies run on ahead, and he awkwardly struggles to carry all of them at once. Rosalind and Celia react to Orlando's hidden love poems with teenage-like squeals, and it's funny because it feels real. And Silvius' occasional dashes across the stage calling, “Phebe! Phebe! Phebe!” get laughs too.
Shaw Festival veteran Jan Alexandra Smith tackles a female version of Jaques, and her take on Duke Senior's melancholy country companion is interesting: she's not so much a brooding pessimist as an offbeat, artsy nonconformist, clad in black and usually engrossed in a book on the side. She delivers the famous “All the world's a stage” monologue not as a pithy critique of humanity but as a sudden creative inspiration, performed for the others with zeal. She may be a loner, but she doesn't mind an audience.
Rutherford takes on Rosalind with confidence and assertiveness, while Plouffe's Orlando is likeable and full of energy; both demonstrate good chemistry with each other and skilled comic timing. Smith and Dixon are also very good. While much of the cast offer routine, adequate performances, High Park rookie Cumyn is an unexpected standout: she imbues the limited role of Phebe with a fierce stubbornness that betrays understandable annoyance at Khan's needy Silvius.
As a celebration of Bohemian, pastoral simplicity as an alternative to city corruption, As You Like It truly fits in with High Park's woodsy surroundings. So set designer Julia Tribe doesn't need to add much; a few sitting logs and scattered tree branches are enough to suggest Arden. As with past High Park productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the audience feels like part of the fictional forest setting.
It ain't as profound as King Lear, but as Williams and company present it, As You Like It is a lot of fun. It's Shakespearean comedy as it was meant to be: casual, funny and made for a wide audience.
As You Like It runs on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at Toronto's High Park Amphitheatre until August 30. Admission is pay-what-you-can ($20 suggested).
More about Shakespeare, Theatre, Comedy, Toronto, High park
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