As You Like It- The Shakespeare Company- Calgary

AYLI

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Mark Bellamy

Playing at The Vertigo Studio Theatre April 30th– May 9th

In the summer of 1599, William Shakespeare took a much needed country holiday. Elizabeth the First had been on the throne of England for 40 years, and the intense politics of the period pervaded every aspect of Elizabethan life- the theatre was no exception. Shakespeare had spent the winter waxing political, writing and premiering such historical heavy-weights as Henry V and Julius Caesar. But as the damp gloom of winter gave way to the ripening summer, it was time for some fresh country air and a flush of fun and romance to bring new life to the London stage.

Shakespeare’s family were living the simple life on the boundaries of the ancient Forest of Arden, far from the sweltering stench of noisy, over-populated London streets. These bucolic summer surroundings set the scene for an enchanting celebration of love; his sister Joan’s wedding. Shakespeare would undoubtedly have been inspired by the secrets of these ancient woods and the mischievous antics of the giddy wedding guests; a perfect setting for his new romantic comedy.

As You Like It would go on to become one of the most popular plays in Shakespeare’s canon, delighting audiences around the world with its twisting tales of love and laughter, and gifting us with one of the best-loved female heroines of the stage- the courageous and quick-witted Rosalind.

Ringing in the merry month of May, Calgary’s The Shakespeare Company brings their own playful production of As You Like It to Vertigo’s Studio Theatre, conveniently located in the heart of down-town.

The Shakespeare Company has been charming audiences since 1996 with works by The Bard himself as well as new Shakespeare-inspired pieces. They further inspire local young people with their hugely successful high school tours and run a program called DiVerseCity, an effort to showcase actors from all ethnic and social backgrounds.

For this springtime romp-in-the-woods, they welcome acclaimed Canadian director Mark Bellamy (long-time Artistic Director of Vertigo Mystery Theatre, Artistic Producer of Lunchbox Theatre). “It was an easy decision”, remarks The Shakespeare Company’s artistic producer Haysam Kadri, “This comedy was right in Mark’s wheelhouse”! With years of experience on the Alberta theatre scene and such accolades as the Queens Diamond Jubilee Medal for contributions to Calgary theatre, we are in capable hands.

“Another big factor for programming As You Like It,” continues Kadri,” was the strong female roles”. The majority of Elizabethan plays are heavily weighted with male roles, normally averaging at six to one. All of Shakespeare’s actors were male, so boys impersonated the great Ladies of the stage. “Parts for woman in Shakespeare, as you know, are slim. In this case you have a strong female character running the motor of the show and Julie Orton agreeing to play the part of Rosalind solidified our decision”.

Entering the 130 seat black box style theatre nestled beneath The Calgary Tower, one would never expect to be transported to Shakespeare’s sun-dappled, leafy-canopied Forest of Arden, but that is exactly what our players encourage the audience to explore.

In the corrupt court of her uncle, Rosalind and her cousin Celia (Julie Orton and Myla Southward respectively) do their best to enrich each others lives with laughter and friendship. When a young gentleman is challenged to a wrestling match at court, Rosalind falls head over heels in love with the champion, Orlando (Joe Perry).

Despite his victory, Orlando finds himself on the run from his ambitious brother and seeks shelter in the nearby Forest of Arden. Rosalind, too, has been banished from her jealous uncle’s court upon pain of death. Disguising herself as a man, Rosalind also flees into the woods along with her constant companion Celia and their faithful fool, Touchstone (Mattie Overall).

Once in the safety of the mysterious forest, our incognito heroine and her companions discover poems pinned to every tree singing the virtues of the beautiful Rosalind, and they soon come across the love-struck author- our vagabond wrestler Orlando.

Finding the freedom to test Orlando’s love for her from within the safety of her disguise, Rosalind convinces him that she can provide a cure for this terrible love-sickness. Orlando must come to her every day and woo her as if she was his Rosalind. Keep in mind that Orlando thinks Rosalind is a boy, pretending to be his Rosalind-so she is a girl pretending to be a boy pretending to be a girl. Remember as well that in Shakespeare’s time, the actor playing Rosalind would actually have been a boy playing a female character who was pretending to be a boy who was pretending to be a girl…. You still with me?

The cast do a wonderful job communicating the intricate twists and turns of gender-reversals and love matches as we journey through the forest. The clear story-telling ensures that the audience is never in doubt of what’s going on amidst the hijinks.

Elsewhere in the forest, we meet another band of banished courtly men, headed up by Rosalind’s own father, Duke Senior (Nathan Schmidt). Exiled by his usurping younger brother, Duke Senior and his troupe find solace and beauty in woodland life, and none so much as the ever melancholy Jaques (Roger LeBlanc).

As The Bard’s most infamously morose creation, Jaques shares with us his musings on mortality-the seven ages of man. “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”, he tells us, transitioning through each phase of life until the inevitable end- “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”.

We’ve all read this popular speech before, but a very special communion takes place between the audience and the words when they are spoken aloud in a theatre. We experience a powerful connection to these deep musings. They resonate from within the mysterious forest, which seems so far from society yet so close to a truer meaning of life. It is an inspiring moment of truly human theatre, and that is Shakespeare’s genius.

Enchantingly accompanied by the charming voices and guitar strummings of our minstrels (Evan Hall and Adam Sanders), the audience are treated to a forest frolic with timeless lovers in this delightful production. So engaged by the stories of these merry characters, we whistled and whooped as romantic courtships were teasingly played out, and laughter ran riot throughout the theatre. Shakespeare’s characters are so thoughtfully crafted, so genuinely human, that we cannot help but cheer on our adored lovers and pranksters. And as Rosalind says, “I’ll begin with the women”.

As a woman myself, and a woman of the theatre, I find that the world presented to us onstage is often disappointing in its depiction of the female experience. This play, therefore, although written over 400 years ago, is a breath of fresh air as Julie Orton brings us an honest, funny, endearing portrayal of a courageous woman seeking the freedom to live and love on her own terms.

Her cousin and bosom-buddy Celia, played by the enchanting Myla Southward, is just as plucky and spirited, and special mention must go to Sarah Wheeldon for her hilariously flirtatious and gutsy Phebe, an alluringly strong-minded shepherdess who mistakenly falls in love with Rosalind’s boyish disguise. As the slightly simpler goat herder Audrey, Christina Muldoon’s wide-eyed love affair with the clown Touchstone, played here by Mattie overall, has us in constant titters and giggles.

It is clear that Shakespeare loved strong women and that they inspired him to immortalize enduring female courage and flair in this beloved comedy. If Queen Elizabeth the First did see As You Like It, I’m certain she could identify with Rosalind’s bold adoption of man-like qualities and would have applauded the bravery of our love-struck heroine. Both Bard newcomers and long-time Shakespeare lovers alike are sure to do the same.

The Shakespeare Company’s production of As You Like It runs at The Vertigo Studio Theatre, located next to The Calgary Tower, from now until May 9th. Tickets are $30, $25 for students and seniors, and can be purchased through their website, http://www.theshakespearecompany.com where you can also read about past shows and upcoming projects. Group bookings can be made by contacting Ayla Stephen at ayla@shakespearecompany.com

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