The weather for the opening night (Wednesday, June 26) of The Bandshell Players’ production of Shakespeare’s arboreal comedy, As You Like It, was somewhat damp and drizzly but the reaction from the small but determined audience was bright and enthusiastic.
This production builds on the success of the Players’ two previous productions, A Midsummer Nights’ Dream (this time last year) and Macbeth (last October): the returning performers are more confident in their use of the Wentworth Park Bandshell’s acoustic qualities and the new performers do a fine job of matching their more experienced castmates.
The play, as originally written, includes a bit of cross-gender comedy and this production, set in the 1990s, adds to this conceit with female actors taking on a variety of male character roles. With the trees and grass of the park within the audience’s peripheral vision at all times, believing one to be in the Forest of Arden is not a huge suspension of disbelief.
And the comedy is still as fresh and acerbic as the day it was first performed. A group of teen-aged boys, who stuck it out to the end, “oohed” and “aahed” at some of the tastier lines (as when Rosalind says, “Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak”, they crowed with laughter like newly minted groundlings).
Director Bonnie MacLeod has managed to physicalize a lot of the witty banter and monologues so that the wordplay doesn’t get buried under the weight of its conceit. She has also kept a rollicking pace to the piece and has her cast aim for a broader comedic style (in part due to the nature of the outside venue where one has to work extra hard to be seen and heard). Subtlety is for more intimate spaces at darker times of the year; in summer one likes one’s romantic comedies bright, high-energy, and light-hearted. (MacLeod had some able assistance from Aaron Corbett who choreographed the wrestling scene with the authority of a devoted fan.)
The story is simple, at least for Shakespeare it’s simple. Rosalind’s father, The Duke, has been usurped and exiled by his sister, Fredericka, and lives with his faithful retainers in The Forest of Arden. Rosalind’s presence is suffered at her aunt’s court because of her sisterly relationship with her cousin, Celia. Orlando is oppressed by his older brother, Oliver, who plots to kill him. Orlando fights Charles the Wrestler and manages to spark with Rosalind before hightailing it to Arden. Fredericka decides she has had enough of Rosalind and banishes her. With Celia in tow and their “fool”, Touchstone, Rosalind, disguised as a boy, also runs off to Arden. Got that? Good because it gets complicated after that–which is a large part of the comedy.
Jenn Tubrett, as usual, gave a strong, charming performance as Rosalind; she didn’t over do the macho elements of her disguise and wisely let the dialogue do the heavy lifting. Lindsay Thompson brought a Valley Girl-esque tone to Celia (or is that too ‘80s?) and was a fitting foil to Tubrett. As Touchstone, Amber Cragg, with red plaid skirt suit, spike-heeled boots and waspish cigar holder, was a furiously funny fashionista floundering in the forest.
Eric Letcher brought a boyish comedy to Orlando, loose, gangly, and full of high emotion. James F.W. Thompson, as Oliver, was the evil preppy brother from a John Hughes movie (again, too ‘80s a reference?): a wonder of whinge, a marvel of mendaciousness, but credibly granted a sudden emotional u-turn. Mark Delaney scored with two roles: Charles The Masked Wrestler and the cynical, almost nihistic, Monsieur Jacques (who gets one of Shakespeare’s biggest hits, the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech with which Delaney does a fine rendition).
Dressed like the Dude from “The Big Lewbowski”, Dave Petrie brings grace and charm to the usurped Duke. Mary-Jean Doyle, as the evil Goth-accoutred Fredericka, brings actual menace to her role and I loved the Darth Vader-like gestures. Ron Newcombe was in fine voice for many tunes as Amiens, one of the Duke’s attendants, and as Hymen, the deity blessing the multiple matches in the final scene.
Stephanie Hennessey, as always a standout in any role she’s cast in, was a gum-smacking delight as the rustic wench, Audrey, who is unsure if she likes Touchstone describing her as “poetical”. Sarah Blanchard was funny and full of moxie as the shepherd, Corin, a role easily made treacly sweet. Laura Bast, as Lebeau, a sympathetic member of Fredericka’s court, had the liveliest facial expressions which gave depth and interest to what otherwise might have been a simple walk on role of exposition.
Andrew Balakshin also took a possibly thankless role as the hapless rustic William, and gave his character a sincerity and like-ability that won over the audience in a few brief beats of dialogue. Bob Lewandowski, as Orlando’s faithful retainer Adam, brought a dignity and grace to his role as well.
Bhreagh MacNeil is a beautiful young woman but as Silvius, another lovestruck rustic, she disappears in quaking, yearning boy-ness: another wonderful characterization from this big cast. Cait MacMullin was a delight of sullen peevishness as Phebe, who Sivius pursues, but is herself smitten with Rosalind in her boy disguise (kind of like the first verse of J. Geil’s “Love Stinks”). And as always, the angelic Minuet Charron is a welcome sight, this time as a flower girl (I wish she had appeared as a diminutive Goth cherub in Fredericka’s court).
Some well-considered musical references connected the play to its 1990s time setting, but to my mind the novelty of the choice is offset by the decade’s lack of a personality. Maybe its celebrity, pop-cultured shallowness fits with the lightness of the play’s action. Maybe I have too many decades under my belt but I always felt like the ‘90s was getting over the ‘80s so we could party like it was 1999 (yet another ‘80s reference) before Y2K ended western civilization. I don’t think the ‘90s references interfered with this production’s success but I can’t say it added much either; Shakespeare’s witty script, the sure-handed direction, and the amazingly talented cast carried the field in that regard.
This production continues every evening, rain or shine, until Sunday, June 30, 7pm at Sydney’s Wentworth Park Bandshell. Except for a very few slightly saucy and salty word choices (nothing that isn’t on the Big Bang Theory), this production is suitable for families. Admission is by donation, and audience members should bring a chair or blanket of their own and be prepared for sunny summer, showery spring, or any of the other 13 seasons available to residents of Cape Breton.