Oscar Derkx (Orlando) and Chelsea Rose (Rosalind) in As You Like It. (photo by Tim Matheson)
What do you get if you mix a Shakespearean comedy with 23 Beatles hits from the 1960s and set the whole thing in Vancouver and the Okanagan? An unforgettable night at Bard on the Beach, which opened its 34th season with a remounting of its 2018 hit As You Like It.
Various nips and tucks to the original script have been made. While purists may not appreciate the surgery, the Bard version still follows the convoluted saga of four pairs of young lovers who cross paths as they work through obstacles in their quests for true love. After all, all you need is love.
The action starts in Vancouver with a zany pre-show bout of Superstar Wrestling – make sure you get into the tent 15 minutes before curtain time. Ringmaster Touchstone introduces Charles 2 Guns Leibowitz, a narcissist on steroids, who takes on all comers for cash prizes. Orlando, who has been denied his inheritance by older brother Oliver, decides to go for it, although the underdog in size and confidence.
During the match, Orlando catches the eye of Rosalind, and it is love at first sight (“she loves you, ya ya ya!”). However, Rosalind is banished from Vancouver by her aunt, and runs off to the Okanagan with best friend Celia and faithful servant Touchstone. To do this safely, Rosalind uses one of Shakespeare’s favourite ploys and disguises herself as a boy (Ganymede), with Celia playing her sister.
Orlando, with his devoted servant, Adam, also heads to the Okanagan when his brother threatens to have him killed. As expected, he crosses paths with Ganymede/Rosalind and her entourage.
Add to the mix a lovelorn rube and the object of his affections, a shepherdess who becomes enamoured of Touchstone, a commune of back-to-earthers headed by Rosalind’s mother, who also was banished, and the plot twists and turns through secret notes, trysts, actors hiding behind trees (it is Shakespeare after all), strange picnics and more. Every scene morphs smoothly into a Fab Four moment through songs like “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “All you Need is Love,” high-energy, fancy footwork (a shout out to choreographer Jonathan Hawley Purvis) and toe-tapping music from a five-piece band helmed by musical director Ben Elliott (who also acts in the play).
This is a real ensemble piece and every cast member seems to give it their all. I was particularly impressed with Chelsea Rose’s vocals, as Rosalind. Oscar Derkx (Orlando) is boyishly charming and can also belt out a song. Elliott (Silvius) showcases his comedic chops in a raunchy pas de deux with Alexandra Lainfiesta (Phoebe). Finally, Scott Bellis, as Jacques, movingly delivers the iconic soliloquy “All the world’s a stage,” where the Bard explores the circle of life in seven stages, from babe to senile senior. Clad in a black turtleneck sweater and corduroy bell bottoms, Bellis is the quintessential beatnik. He also gets one of the best lines of the night – “I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs.”
Director Daryl Clonan can be proud of this latest iteration, which has toured through parts of Canada and the United States. The production values are top rate, starting with the glitzy set including a psychedelic VW parked at the back of the stage. Kudos to costume designer Carmen Alatorre for capturing the essence of the era – paisleys, acid-wash jeans, fringed vests, bell-bottoms, granny glasses, headbands and beads for the Okanagan granola set with Jackie O pillbox hats, white gloves, two-piece suits, chinos and polyester shirts for the urban crowd. And Gerald King’s lighting works wonders with a rainbow palette projected against Plexiglas panels that illuminate the tent backdrop of ocean and mountains.
In something completely different, the cast members of As You Like It also star in Julius Caesar, which plays alternating nights on the BMO Stage.
Bard on the Beach last produced Julius Caesar in 2007. This summer’s adaptation by Stephen Drover, set in modern times, brings novel perspectives to the classic tragedy of political ambition, jealousy, tyranny, treachery, mob rule, murder and revenge, and will resonate with contemporary audiences.
Despite the title, the real protagonist is Brutus, who grapples with his loyalty to Caesar and what he believes is the greater good of Rome, when approached by a group of senators to help assassinate Caesar. Hesitant at first, he ultimately joins the other senators in plotting Caesar’s demise – to take place at a meeting on the Ides (15th) of March. Though Caesar has been warned by a local soothsayer to beware that day, he ignores that warning and the pleas of his wife to stay home.
Caesar (an impressive Andrew Wheeler) arrives at the senate resplendent in a white business suit, topped off with a jaunty fedora, to the cheers of his people. Once there, Brutus and his fellow conspirators surround Caesar and, one by one, stab him, the final thrust coming from Brutus. In this viscerally haunting scene, Caesar falls to the ground, his white suit covered in red blood, as he utters his last words, “et tu, Brute,” surrounded by the conspirators, their hands dripping with blood.
At the state funeral, Brutus tries to convince the crowd that Caesar had to die for the good of Rome, but Mark Antony – a loyal friend to Caesar and a skilful orator – gives the “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” speech, over a ghoulish glass coffin containing Caesar’s bloodied body. The crowd turns against the conspirators, who are forced to flee. Antony then summons Caesar’s nephew, Octavius, to raise an army to hunt down and kill the conspirators so that Caesar’s death can be avenged. This leads to a civil war, with the action coming right into the audience.
In the penultimate scene, Brutus, having been visited by Caesar’s bloodied ghost and surrounded by his fallen comrades, realizes that defeat is at hand and implores his trusty servant to kill him. Andrew McNee’s performance as Brutus in this scene is compelling.
The final scene is eerie, as Caesar’s ghost slowly walks off the stage into the sunset amid wisps of smoke.
Director Cherisse Richards has chosen to reverse many of the roles so that most of the conspirators are female, as is the role of Mark Antony, played by Jennifer Lines, who is simply sublime.
In another twist, Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, and Portia, Brutus’s wife, appear more prominently in the adaptation, providing insights into the private lives and feelings of their husbands.
The stark set showcases a mix of old and new – jagged concrete columns evoke ancient Roman architecture, which morphs into tables, desks and even a wardrobe, against a backdrop of multimedia screens.
Jessica Oostergo’s warrior costumes are metaphors for good versus evil – Octavius’s allies clad in light khaki fatigues while Brutus’s side roams the stage in black and grey, looking like SWAT team members.
Video designer Candelario Andrade’s projections – spanning the spectrum from Joan of Arc, to Napoleon at Waterloo, to the Jan. 6, 2021, riots at the U.S. Capitol – accompanied by sound designer Kate Delorme’s ominous scores contextualize the action.
For Bard on the Beach tickets and the full schedule, which also includes Henry V and Goblin: Macbeth, visit bardonthebeach.org.
Tova Kornfeld is a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.