I don’t want to spoil the party, but I’ve got a feeling you already suspect this anyway: Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s buoyant and vibrant new production of As You Like It, set in the 1960s and using the timeless catalog of songs by The Beatles as its musical accompaniment, is one of the most original and joyful plays you could ever want to attend. This brainchild from director Daryl Cloran and Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach Festival is a taste of honey: the first absolutely must-see show of the season, a production that really needs to move to Broadway after its run so that its genius and infectious exuberance can play to a larger audience.
The fun begins even before the play does, with Cloran welcoming us to a wrestling competition hosted, we will learn, by the usurper Duke Frederick (Kevin Gudahl, who also plays the deposed and banished Duke Senior). This crowd-pleasing pre-show scene (well worth being in your seats early) not only introduces the blend of Bard and Beatles, but also provides greater context for the Shakespeare play’s cold open, which sees Orlando (Liam Quealy), a young lord reduced to near-peasant status by his evil older brother and at the end of his rope, challenge the champion. Before he can fight, though, he meets the Duke’s niece Rosalind (Lakeisha Renee), and before either one can even think “I’ve just seen a face,” they have fallen in love.
Shakespeare’s comedies are fun that way.
They also have their share of banishments. It won’t be long before Orlando and Rosalind also (separately) find themselves forced onto the long and winding road to the Forest of Arden, where Duke Senior has established a kind of hippie court in exile, complete with a VW Bus. (Pam Johnson’s scenic design is uniformly outstanding.) The deposed Duke is much happier in exile than his brother seems to be back at the palace. In the forest, he has become mother nature’s son and a philosopher who has surrounded himself with a group of musical merry men…and one dour woman, the melancholy Jacques. A male in the original, here she is played in an Andy Warhol wig by Deborah Hay, whose take on the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech is hauntingly beautiful.
Rosalind travels with the Duke’s daughter Celia (Melanie Brezill). Afraid to act naturally on the road, which could be dangerous for two women, they decide that Rosalind will disguise herself as a man to keep them both safe. (Cross-dressing and gender-bending are as much a part of Shakespearean comedies as weddings, so of course no one can tell that she’s a woman even though everyone they meet seems to refer to her as a “pretty youth.”) They also bring along the Duke’s clown Touchstone (a hilarious and bawdy Kayvon Khoshkam) to keep them company, provide levity on the journey, and handle all of the suitcases. (He is very unhappy about having to carry that weight.)
OK, I’ll stop that song-title silliness for now as a gift from me to you. There’s a place for that sort of thing, but I know that you can’t do that constantly. (And, yes, I should have known better, but what can you do?) Let’s get back to the review. Are you still with me or did you decide to run for your life? Please, don’t pass me by: I swear it’s getting better!
The truth is that the infusion of Beatles songs works so well with the script that it’s almost amazing that no one ever did this before. Cirque du Soleil did create one of its Las Vegas shows around Beatles songs, and movies like Across the Universe have recognized the universality of emotion and experience in the Lennon/McCartney ouvre, but Shakespeare’s hilarious homage to love is a perfect marriage for the Fab Four. Cloran and company even manage to get “I Am the Walrus” to fit. (Goo goo g’joob.) The familiar songs invite us in while acting like pseudo-soliloquies, as in modern musicals, not only reflecting the mood but furthering the plot and revealing the desires and thoughts of the characters.
It isn’t only the songs, though, that make this show work so well. Cloran’s direction wrings every bit of comedy from Shakespeare’s writing. (This is probably the single funniest Shakespeare production I’ve ever seen.) Jonathan Hawley Purvis’s creative choreography makes every song come alive, and his comic fight choreography in the wrestling scenes is simply brilliant. And all of the actors—including the musicians—seem to be having a great time as well, and so will you. By the time that all of the various couples come together (sorry) for the massive quadruple wedding scene (which culminates in another clever Purvis movement), this cast and company have earned their long-standing ovation.
(I want to mention how wonderful Michael Dashefsky and Heidi Kettenring are as the put-upon shepherd Silvius and the object of his affection, the prideful Phoebe, but I’m so tired right now. It’s after 2 AM and I need some golden slumbers in my life.)
As You Like It runs through November 21. Tickets are available at www.chicagoshakes.com.
P.S. I love you. The end.
[I’m probably a Blue Meanie for mentioning this, but there are 24 titles hidden in this review, not counting “I Am the Walrus.” Did you see them all?]