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As You Like It

Review by Michael Oliver

The UPEI Theatre Society presented Shakespeare's As You Like It at the Carrefour Theatre in Charlottetown from March 20th until the 22nd, winning audiences with a strange but ultimately strong production of this masterpiece of comedy.

Directed by Ron Irving, this production-happily-did not attempt a faddish "intellectual" interpretation of the play. Too often nowadays this great romantic classic is performed because, in Rosalind, it has the longest female role in Shakespeare, and because it seems to offer people with revisionist agendas opportunities for intervention. Rosalind's cross-dressing, for example, is a standard plot device of comedy, but there are many who would have us see it as a slyly gendered subtext. Irving made a wise decision when he chose to follow Shakespeare, not the Bard's "progressive" readers.

But he made a sad mistake in trying to force As You Like It to become a 1960s pastoral, complete with hippy costuming and evocations of the struggle of the "flower children" with the "pigs." Especially unwise was substituting Shakespeare's songs with freaky pop tunes from the 60s, sung with neither joy nor anger, nor the slightest bit of relevance. The only feature of the mis-en-scene that added anything to the production was Doug Mills's set design, with hanging screens depicting oaks and shrubs of the greenwood world of Arden, not of California.

Critics often claim that As You Like It works or does not work according to the actress playing Rosalind, and yet the role of Rosalind's ironic cousin Celia, who travels with her to the forest, is important too. In this production Sharon Eyster played the part of Rosalind; Melissa Vloet played the part of Celia. They looked like two blonde sisters, and both performed quite well, but really there was quite a difference.

While Eyster spoke her lines with conversational enunciation, Vloet spoke her lines with heightened resonance. While Eyster seemed all voice, intense and yet inactive, Vloet gestured freely, flashed expressions with her face, and moved about the stage with easy self-possession. So it must be said: the casting should have been reversed, for Vloet would have made a more ecstatic, more romantic Rosalind.

The greatest strength of this production was the acting of the less important roles. Matt Stewart as Orlando had the not-too-easy task of playing straight man to the jokes and jibes of Rosalind, but he preserved a sense of dignity that made him seem a worthy suitor for her love. Steve Forbes presented Jaques's melancholy well, although he threw away the great speech "All the world's a stage" by trying much too hard to sound world-weary. And, with witty mining Adam Gauthier as Silvius portrayed both love and love's frustration.

But the tour de force of this production was the comic interplay of Joey Weale as clownish Touchstone and Jennifer Jackson as rustic Audrey. With her bulky figure and her red hair tied in pigtails, Jackson stole the show, galumphing wildly, posing with preposterous abandonment, and madly making eyes at her supposed courtly lover. This was just the zany touch that Irving's As You Like It needed to make it a strong production after all.

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