I keep trying to find bad things to say about the Freewill Shakespeare Festival, but . . .
I went to As You Like It Tuesday night (July 7), a week after seeing Freewill’s Coriolanus. The austere Roman arcade of that story is transformed into a vine-covered bower. Again the cast uses every bit of the multi-level set and also the aisles and hillsides and the flat spaces to the left and right back stage. The entire space under the tent has been transformed into the Forest of Arden and the very full house seems completely welcome and at home in this Arcadia. All positive.
The quasi-Edwardian costumes by Hannah Matiachuk are lovely. I got a golden Enchanted April feeling.
When the music began for Amiens’ (Nicolas Donald Rose) opening song, it struck me as a little Alan Parson’s Project, and I thought, “Finally! I can criticise!” But the prog-rock vibe disappeared sooner than I’d thought it. Nice job, Sound Designer Matthew Skopyk! I later had a similar pause over the whistling tune in the second half, but immediately was caught up in the joyful celebration — on stage and in the audience — that culminated in the glorious curtain call/dance party that closed the show. This burst of joy perhaps surpassed last year’s rousing rendition of “It’s Now or Never” by Sheldon Elter and the cast at the end of The Taming of the Shrew.
I wondered whether Charles’ (Jesse Gervais) Cockney accent might slide into Dick van Dyke’s mid-Atlantic Burt from Mary Poppins. Nope. It held steady and together with Kemble and Phebe’s (Nancy McAlear in a double role) brogue from somewhere in the northern half of the Irish sea, helped to draw the lines between the classes. This distinction is too often made in productions of Shakespeare by making the lower classes little more than cartoon Disney bumpkins, like the button people after the horse race in Mary Poppins. Freewill pulled it out of the hat again.
Gervais and Farren Timoteo are hilariously physical, slapstick, and rude as the wrestler Charles and his coach Hugh (a part not in Shakespeare’s text). And John Ullyat steals his few scenes as a Clouseau-like only slightly repressed gay Frenchman. Ullyat is somehow at once over-the-top and magically restrained as Le Beau. It is perhaps a disappointment that Ullyat was not a part of the finale, as far as I could tell.
Mary Hulbert’s Rosalind is tremendous and Belinda Cornish’s Celia is the perfect foil/companion/friendly gadfly. Ashley Wright made Jaques, a difficult role, into something thought provoking, quietly joyful, as well as the melancholy that is his nature. And Ryan Parker as Touchstone made something reachable out of a character potentially very alien to a modern audience.
I did find one truly negative criticism of Freewill’s As You Like It, but I had to dig deep. It is not that Touchstone sometimes drops his cane while juggling it — the recovery is always smooth — or that Cornish and Hulbert had an hilarious Harvey Corman-Tim Conway moment of mutual corpsing — it just felt like it needed to be there. Such fumbles happen in live theatre — I seem to remember the wonderfully steady Wally McSween saving the plot by fudging a misthrown curling rock with his foot in the Citadel’s production of The Black Bonspiel of Wullie MacCrimmon back in 1980.
No. The problem I have I’ll leave at the door of Director Marianne Copithorne. In this production, with such nice use of accents, Jaques’ “Thereby hangs a tale” speech is unfortunately delivered with North American Theatrical English pronunciation and virtually all of the dense, ribald, earthy humour is lost.
. . . And then he drew a dial from his poke,
And, looking on it with lack-lustre eye,
Says very wisely, ‘It is ten o’clock:
Thus we may see,’ quoth he, ‘how the world wags:
‘Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more ’twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.’
In Shakespeare’s day, and in available English dialects today, every “hour” of this passage is an “whore”, each “rot” is a “rut” and the “ripes” are “rapes”. And thereby hangs at least a piece of a tale.
But Hulbert’s delivery of Rosalind’s “I set him every day to woo me” speech revealed a gender reversed parallel between Rosalind/Orlando and Hamlet/Ophelia I’d never imagined before, Orlando sent to a monastery down the road from Ophelia’s nunnery. That discovery probably more than makes up for the loss of a little ribald humour.
No matter how desperately I try to find fault, the Freewill Players continue to present joyous, moving, and truly impressive Shakespeare the way it should be performed: in the open air, with grass, and trees, and squirrels, in the Forest of Arden where fantasy and reality meet.
Freewill’s As You Like It continues in repertory with Coriolanus until July 19, 2015, in the Forest of Arden (the Heritage Amphitheatre in Edmonton’s Hawrelak Park).
Go and feel the joy!