By William Shakespeare
Directed by Jillian Keiley
At the Festival Theatre, June 3-October 22, 2016
As You Like It is a romantic comedy of wit in which various pairs of lovers (from high station to low) discover imaginative freedom in life and love. Jillian Keiley’s interactive production—set in 1980s Newfoundland, when a cultural revolution seemed to be in progress—is periodically amusing, which is not the same as being witty. Members of the audience are given little bags with props, including poems written by schoolchildren (to parody Orlando’s unfortunate sonnets hung on trees), a small blue paper fan for suggesting the sea, and a sprig of pine greenery, and are encouraged to engage in conversation with members of the ensemble and sing along (specific props in hand) to the folksy tunes of Great Big Sea’s Bob Hallett. During the play proper, some of the props (different ones for different sections of the audience) as emblematic representations of a theme, though this sort of use becomes cheap parody, especially in the stag scene or other pastoral moments. Arden becomes a theme park where Disney enthusiasts would not be out of place. The playfulness is stretched to its limits: sexual double entendres (“hold my dinghy,” or “show me your bush”) are exploited for their low clichéd worth. Why do professional actors act as if they are privy to special sexual jokes that are as old as the hills? Must be because they think that they are playing to groundlings.
At first Bretta Gereke’s costumes suggest something generally rugged and rural—leather, homespun wools and other fabrics—but the most distinctive characters in the play are given distinctive costumes of mixed quality. Celia (Trish Lindstrom) is pretty in her blond ringlets, a pink, frilly skirt, and boots, and Sir Oliver Martext (played drunk by John Kirkpatrick) is turned into a hippie with headband and sandals. Touchstone is the oddest of the odd, his hat and checkered suit (adorned with assorted decorations) immediately set him off as a clown, though Sanjay Talwar pushes much too desperately hard to make the “roynish” clown’s jokes accessible to a modern audience. Talwar over-emphasizes the bawdy bits—as do others in the ensemble—without ever becomg a significant figure of wit. Hymen has the glitziest costume (punk) that Robin Hutton wears with a flourish but that’s because she’s portrayed as an emcee and dance caller, besides being a goddess (though this is a case of gender-bending as Hymen is traditionally male). The error in this costume is that it removes all elements of surprise. Hymen discloses herself from the outset, so there is no magic when she plays her mythic role later in the action. Gender-bending, in any case, is intrinsic to this comedy. Rosalind turns into Ganymede, and her transformation is crucial to the theme of imaginative freedom. In Keiley’s production, the gender-bending is pushed further: instead of the good Duke Senior there is a Duchess (Brigit Wilson), and Jaques is turned by Seana McKenna into a superbly eloquent cynic.
Overall, there is an undeniable sense of something festive and participatory on stage—indeed, something festively Canadian (though Robin Phillips, Richard Monette, and others led the way much earlier in this regard)–but the frequent interruptions by silly gags and calls to sing-a-long merely interrupt the play’s action, coarsen the texture, and sideline the serious undernotes in the comedy. Director Jillian Keiley (a Newfoundlander herself) appears to have forgotten that in a very fundamental sense much of the romantic and comic action of the play occurs in its very language, and it is here, again, that the younger members of the Festival company show their limitations. For a production set in Newfoundland, there is hardly much Newfie about the accents, but accent is only part of a larger vocal problem. Of all the cast, only Scott Wentworth’s Duke Frederick, Brian Tree’s cockney Adam (though a revival of long-familiar Treeisms), and Seana McKenna’s non-gimmicky, clearly spoken Jaques shine. With her earphones and airhead behaviour, Trish Lindstrom is wonderfully comic in a modern manner as Celia, and she does project the character’s watchfulness and attentiveness. Rosalind (Petrina Bromley) delivers a rather flat, colourless performance (as either gender), and it is only later in the play that she transcends the low shtick of a sock stuffed into her trousers to offer a moderately convincing portrayal of a woman head over heels in love. However, her Orlando (Cyrus Lane) is quite the lamest in vocal delivery and theatre portraiture, and there is no real chemistry between him and his Rosalind. When one of the greatest highlights is the wrestling match where Orlando defeats strongman Charles in a parody of a WWF bout, you ought to know that Shakespeare will be the loser. However, Keiley’s production takes to heart Shakespeare’s witty advice: “Sell when you can; you are not for all markets.”