by Lynn on June 11, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

Red face of fury

At the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Jillian Keiley
Designed by Bretta Gerecke
Lighting by Leigh Ann Vardy
Composed by Bob Hallett
Sound by Don Ellis
Cast: Petrina Bromley
David Collins
Ijeoma Emesowum
Deidre Gillard-Rowlings
Robin Hutton
John Kirkpatrick
Cyrus Lane
Trish Lindström
James Mac
Chad McFadden
Seana McKenna
Cory O’Brien
Sanjay Talwar
Brian Tree
Scott Wentworth
Brigit Wilson
Antoine Yared

Once again a director imposes a self-indulgent concept on a play that doesn’t serve it; with audience participation that insults everybody; performed by many actors out of their depth with the language and its meaning.

The Story. There is a lot of animosity between siblings in As You Like It. Orlando (Cyrus Lane) is furious with his older brother Oliver (John Kirkpatrick). Oliver did not respect their late father Sir Rowland de Boys’ wishes, that Orlando should be given his birthright, a good education and brought up as a gentleman.

The ambitious Duke Frederick (Scott Wentworth) has banished his sister Duchess Senior (Brigit Wilson) from the kingdom and taken over the rule of the land. Duchess Senior and her followers have found sanctuary in the Forest of Arden. Rosalind (Petrina Bromley), the Duchess’s daughter, lives in Duke Frederick’s palace because she is very close with her cousin Celia (Trish Lindström), the Duke’s daughter. It’s in the Duke’s court that Rosalind sees Orlando from afar and is smitten. When he sees her he’s smitten too. The raging Duke Frederick then banishes Rosalind and in solidarity with her Celia and Rosalind plan to leave for the Forest of Arden. Rosalind decides to dress as a boy for protection.

Fearing for his safety, Orlando escapes with his aged servant Adam (Brian Tree) to the Forest of Arden as well. He manages to meet the Duchess Senior in the Forest and joins her group. He writes many poems to Rosalind and sticks them on trees in the Forest. Rosalind (in disguise) finds them and Orlando as well. He doesn’t recognize this young boy as his love. This gives Rosalind a chance to observe Orlando in his intensions and coach him in how to woo a woman (namely her). Orlando feels he was a bit awkward when he wooed Rosalind in court so this help is gratefully accepted. Rosalind falls deeper in love with Orlando and Orlando falls in love with this lovely boy (and is shaken by it) not realizing that the boy in fact is Rosalind in disguise.

The Production. Director Jillian Keiley has set the play in Newfoundland in the 1980s when there was a cultural revolution in Newfoundland that put new value on the sense of community. She says in her program note that “one of the signatures of Newfoundland culture is that it is not performative but participatory. To that end, as the audience files into the theatre, each member of the audience is given a specially made ‘goody-bag’ with “As You Like It” printed on it. Inside are props that will be needed during the play: a branch of a fir tree, a piece of paper with a poem printed on it, a blue fan, a wand with a star on the end, a gizmo that when pressed makes a sound of a sheep, another gizmo that looks like a fire.

Lively activity is already happening on stage as the audience files in. Robin Hutton as Hymen holds court, microphone in hand, welcoming, buoyant, lively, wise-cracking—dressed in high-heeled boots and a form-fitting getup. Musicians play down-home music. Rustic characters in jeans, plaid shirts, toques and boots, dance. Members of the audience also participate. It seems like square dancing with Robin Hutton calling out the moves.

When the play begins proper, Orlando rails at Adam about the unfairness of his treatment. Orlando roams the stage; Adam is set in place behind him. As Orlando, Cyrus Lane is full of anger and frustration at his situation.

Duke Frederick (Scott Wentworth) is dressed in a flashy double-breasted suit and wavy blond wig followed by two women assistants in tight ensembles, one talking on a cell phone while making notes.

Rosalind and Celia are dressed in a mishmash of bright colours and layers (kudos to designer, Bretta Gereke). When they pack to go to the Forest of Arden their luggage of choice are brightly coloured suitcases on wheels. Celia is careful to pack her hair dryer.

As for those ‘goody-bags’ of props… Robin Hutton is helpful in the game of ‘show and tell’. When Rosalind and Celia enter the Forest of Arden the audience is asked to take out the branch of the fir tree and hold it up in front of their faces. Hutton also instructs them when to put them down (much rustling here). When the scene is at night those people with the bright star on a wand take them out (they are in the balcony) and hold them aloft—voilá stars in the sky. When the scene involves the shepherd Corin and his sheep, those in the audience, house right, press their gizmos that make a baaaaing sound. I think they are really saying “baaad” but I digress. The audience is asked to stick the paper with the poem onto the fir branch suggesting the trees with all of Orlando’s love poems. For some reason the audience is instructed to take out the round fans from their bags, hold the fans aloft and on a cue from Robin Hutton do a wave across the theatre and back. Later in a scene with Duchess Senior several of her followers take long sticks, on the end of which are marshmallows, and reach out into the audience to hold over those gizmos that suggest fire, thus roasting their marshmallows.

At every single turn this ‘business’ upstages the play and an actor actually speaking. At no time does it ever serve the scene or the play as a whole.

Keiley, not content with how Shakespeare ends the play, adds a line from Romeo and Juliet with a twist: “For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Rosalind and her Orlando.”

Its inclusion is mystifying; again a witless joke at the expense of the play.

Keiley’s staging is pedestrian at best. I call it the “stay out of my light” or ‘I have the plague” school of directing. The speaker stands upstage centre and addresses everyone else who are fanned out in a curve on the sides, downstage at least five feet away, all looking upstage at the speaker. Scene after scene, the same staging—speaker upstage looking down, those talked to five feet away at least, looking up, standing still. Dreary.

Packing a colourful suitcase including a hairdryer to take to the Forest of Arden; Rosalind weakly chopping at a piece of wood in the middle and then Celia successfully splitting the same piece of wood by chopping it at its end are momentary funny visual jokes, in a production full of them. But one has to wonder why director Jillian Keiley feels compelled to aim so low for the jokes. When a joke makes sense, it’s funny. When it doesn’t—a hairdryer in the forest, not knowing how to chop wood?—it’s witless and after a while just wearying.

Keiley does some gender-bending in her casting. In Shakespeare’s play it’s Duke Senior who has been banished not Duchess Senior and Jaques, a melancholy philosopher in the Forest is a man in the play, but is now a woman. I have no trouble with gender bending. I just wonder why the gender of only two character’s has been changed. Seems like an opportunity to make a solid comment has been squandered.

The acting and what to do with it almost seems irrelevant in Keiley’s concept. The chemistry and love that should exist between Rosalind and Orlando is non-existent between Petrina Bromley as Rosalind and Cyrus Lane as Orlando. There is no intimacy, no tenderness, no affection.

Bromley has done lovely work in Keiley’s Newfoundland created plays. But she is out of her depth with Shakespeare. She is one-note of toughness with little sense of the poetry or what it means. Cyrus Lane as Orlando has a sense of the poetry but with no one to play off it falls flat.

Accents are all over the place and not focused in Newfoundland except for those few who are actually from there.

I am grateful for Scott Wentworth as the angry Duke, Seana McKenna as the melancholy, wry Jaques, and Trish Lindström as the perky, impish Celia. They have the poetry, nuance and infinite variety of Shakespeare in their bones and no amount of distracting business from the director can hide it.

Comment. Jillian Keiley is masterful when she is dealing with plays that she and her small circle of Newfoundland actors, writer and designers create together such as: Oil and Water, Fear of Flight and Afterimage. She has created a particular vocabulary of movement and music that is applicable to her particular creative process. This also works a treat when applied to certain plays of a surreal nature: her wonderful production of Metamorphoses several years ago at York University; her 2014 eye-popping Stratford production of Alice Through the Looking Glass come to mind.

But this process is not applicable for all plays as was clearly obvious with her self-indulgent, distracting direction of The Diary of Anne Frank last year at Stratford. We can now add As You Like It to that deplorable mix. When the concept becomes more important than the play then we have a problem. I get the sense watching As You Like It that the play is irrelevant to Keiley’s concept.

From Keiley’s program note: “Newfoundland culture “…is not performative but participatory”

Keiley is determined to engage the audience by involving them as they “become a starry night, a sheep, a fish, a fire…a part of a kitchen-party culture, a dance-together culture—wherein the art is not to be examined or observed but to be experienced by all of us, together in a circle.”

Huh? One does wonder what Keiley thinks the audience is doing when they show up for a play (the play, remember that? The reason we’re in the room?); when they sit quietly looking forward, listening, paying attention, concentrating? Does she not think that is participating in the experience; that they must engage in all this extraneous, distracting stuff before they get a true sense of the play? Mind boggling.

Further from her program:

As You Like It is a love story. An argument to recognize the good of rural living, and a couples dance. This production is based on a traditional dance called “Running the Goat” a legacy left by the now resettled community of Harbour Deep.”

Keiley’s program note is as rambling and as unfocused as her production.

If you really want to see and get the true sense of the beauty and openhearted joy of a Newfoundland community, skip As You Like It at Stratford and see Come from Away when it opens the refurbished Royal Alexandra Theatre in November in Toronto. This is a musical by David Heim and Irene Sankoff about how the people of the small town of Gander, Newfoundland accommodated 38 planes heading for the U.S, that were forced to land there during 9/11, 2001. The planes were carrying 6,000 people—more than twice the population of Gander. The people of Gander and the surrounding communities opened their homes, churches, community centers and hearts and fed, clothed, cared for and comforted strangers who just wanted to go home but couldn’t.

I saw the show in a workshop. Come From Away says more about the specialness of a Newfoundland community than this ill-conceived, self-indulgent, insulting, dreadful production of As You Like It.

Presented by the Stratford Festival.

Opened: June 3, 2016.
Closes: October 22, 2016.
Cast: 30; 19 men, 11 women.
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes, approx.

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