‘As You Like It’ at Chicago Shakespeare: Plugged into Beatles jukebox, but true to Bard
Review: ‘As You Like It’ by William Shakespeare, directed by Daryl Cloran, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater through Dec. 5. ★★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson
If the byword of staging Shakespeare’s plays is “the text first,” a production that weaves in two dozen Beatles songs, while freely truncating the text, might fall somewhere between a rolling of the dice and a rolling of the eyes. Yet in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s wacky take on “As You Like It,” a stellar company, everybody from actors to designers and I dare say set painters, has created an irresistible winner that deserves to pack ’em in, well, “Eight Days a Week.”
You don’t want to straggle in late for this delightful romp, conceived by Daryl Cloran and the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival. It begins with a pre-show, a setup that hilariously elaborates Shakespeare’s own framing of the young-love story at the heart of “As You Like It.” The ambitious gag is a wrestling “show,” a mock-ferocious smackdown with Touchstone, the court fool, as the flamboyant announcer. This pretext is entirely pre-text: It leads into the Bard’s first lines and shows us – and the impressionable young Rosalind – just how dangerous the feared wrestler Charles really is. Or anyway appears to be. Thus when the youthful swain Orlando, who has just caught her eye, defeats Charles, Rosalind is dazzled. Orlando is dazzled right back, and there beginneth our tale.
Shakespeare’s crazy, brilliant, infectious pastoral comedy is, at bottom, quite formulaic. Rosalind’s father, Duke Senior, has been overthrown and banished by his brother, Duke Frederick. The deposed duke and his retinue have retreated to the nearby Forest of Arden. But Frederick has allowed the girl Rosalind to remain behind as best friend and companion of his own daughter Celia. The plot thickens, however, when Frederick suddenly decides that Rosalind poses a threat and banishes her, as well. Celia will have none of that and resolves to flee with Rosalind – to the same Forest of Arden, Rosalind disguised as a young man for their mutual safety and the two girls accompanied by the devoted fool Touchstone.
Now the last and crucial wrinkle. Orlando, the handsome wrestler, also discovers that his life is in peril at the hands of his older brother, who has mistreated him since the death of their father and now resolves to dispatch Orlando once and for all. So off the lad flies, in the company of a faithful old family servant, to that same, now quite populous Arden woods.
“As You Like It” is a human comedy in every aspect of that expression. It has a great heart and a profound soul. It is observant of the human condition and empathic of its occupants. Those qualities are only underscored by the many Beatles songs cleverly selected, deftly interwoven and remarkably well performed by the actors and a backup band. Never do the musical excursions feel like departures or distractions. Never does either the trajectory or the specificity of the text suffer from the Beatles embellishments. It’s all great fun, to the point and indeed often quite touching.
The textual cuts, however, are substantial and generally regrettable, even mystifying. Kayvon Khoshkam’s turn as Touchstone, made of equal parts exuberance and wit, is penalized most in the shrinking of the text. Touchstone’s wry comparison between the pleasures of pastoral life and the blandishments of the court is reduced, most lamentably, to a whiff, and his thoroughly droll philosophical debate with the shepherd Corin deleted altogether.
Still, the text of the play remains in substance, and it is delivered thoughtfully, intelligently and at times compellingly by this excellent cast. What one might call the subsurface seriousness of Gaines’ production swells to the fore with Kevin Gudahl’s entrance as the banished Duke Senior. Gudahl, who also plays the “bad” brother Frederick, brough the mirthful house to quiet attention with Duke Senior’s homily on his courtiers’ now reduced circumstances, a monologue that turns upon the line “Sweet are the uses of adversity.” It was beautifully, almost off-handedly delivered.
And so, too, was Deborah Hay’s speech, as the weary cynic Jaques, on the likeness of the world to a stage and how all of humanity are but players, their acts divided into seven ages – the last of which, after the great arc of life in all its vigor and pomp, is mere oblivion, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
The two love-struck kids make a charming pair in Liam Quealy as Orlando and Lakeisha Renee as Rosalind, the girl guised as boy who undertakes to school unsuspecting Orlando in how he should woo his beloved Rosalind. Having met the girl of his dreams only once, and that briefly, he doesn’t recognize her in boy’s attire, and this Rosalind works him over pretty good for his slipshod practice at wooing. Melanie Brazill, as Rosalind’s faithful cousin Celia, offers a bubbly foil to the love-struck girl.
As for all those Beatles songs, only some of which are sung complete, they are after all but ornaments, amusing and beguiling as they may be. “As You Like it” ultimately must rise or fall on the integrity and delivery of its text, and that is the most impressive and satisfying aspect of this vibrant, surprising and wholly engaging production.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com