By Patrick O’Brien
Chicago Shakes's marketing says it all, doesn't it? As You Like It, William Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy. Music by The Beatles, forgers of one of the most piquant and diverse songbooks in music history. That VW minibus done up in rainbow hearts. Everything screams pure flower power. But that's not at all what we discover upon entering the Courtyard Theatre. Instead, we walk in on a prizefight in progress, boxing ring and all. No idlyllic scene, this; it's dingy, smoky, and not a little claustrophobic. What is adapter/director Daryl Cloban up to? It turns out this is Duke Frederick's court, which pits people, strangers and family alike, against each other, in and outside the ring. Such is his grip that it would seem the only escape is on pain of death. Or banishment, which might as well be death. But, lo, there is an escape in the forest of Arden, where Frederick’s exiled brother holds a hippied-up court of his own. And when we reach it, it feels like a breath of fresh air. Like in many post-pandemic reflections, it's only when the stressors are gone that you notice they were there.
Indeed, the songbook seems to follow suit, as the jangly pleas of "Help!" give way to, well, "Let It Be." The autumn approaches, and the sun gradually fades away, but this As You Like It is one last blast of summer warmth anyone would want to bask in. A gentle comedy, perfect for a world just starting to find new equilibrium, its laughs are about breaking out of the rut, stretching a little bit beyond your comfort zone. “If I were to do X, I would Y,” and then actually doing X and Y. Such is the game Rosalind (Lakeisha Renee) plays. Having fallen in love at first sight with the dispossessed and banished Orlando (Liam Quealy), after being banished herself, she sets out in pursuit of him, albeit in the guise of a man to suss out Orlando’s true feelings. The couples start piling up, in true Bard fashion, and the funny ensues from there. But don’t worry, because “We Can Work It Out,” they sing. Smartly, the laughs are contrasted with stillness, the sort that can only bloom in a meditative setting. In particular, that old chestnut “All the world’s a stage” is made fresh and tangy again, perhaps through the same alchemy that makes “Goo goo g'joob” make sense.
Its interpreter, Deborah Hay as Jaques, the misfit among misfits, is the walrus, the eggman, all that and more in a polo neck and Warhol wig. She and her temperamental opposite, Kayvon Khoshkam’s wacky and fourth-wall-sundering jester Touchstone, are locked in a fierce contest of walking off with the whole show. But, to balance them out, Quealy and Renee are a well-matched pair, both appealingly innocent, both solid movers and singers, both several notches smarter than the average Shakespearean lovers. In a show full of people pulling double-duty, Kevin Gudahl scores as both the odious cash-flashing Duke Frederick and his exiled hair-down-to-there brother. And if As You Like It occasionally lumbers under the weight of one couple too many, Chicago favorite Heidi Kettenring makes easy work of it as the less-than-easygoing Phoebe. Often tucked in the back but never bringing up anyone’s rear: Adam Wesley Brown, Michael Dashefsky, Austin Eckert, Kieran McCabe, Kurt Schweitz, and Nancy Voigts as our humble band, without whom this magical tour through the Beatles catalogue would just be a silly mashup. Cloran is probably not the first one to put together the Bard of Stratford and the Bards of Liverpool, but it’s unlikely they’ve come together before in such a surprisingly sprightly and even genuinely moving fashion. First produced in his native Canada, this As You Like It deserves to hang around Chicago to keep us warm for a bit. And then, from there, if there's fairness, across the universe.
As You Like It plays through November 21st in Chicago Shakespeare''s Courtyard Theater. For tickets or more information, please call (312) 595-5600 or visit chicagoshakes.com.
Patrons must provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination and wear a mask while in the theater. Photos by Liz Lauren.