I’d just like to begin by stating that any play that greets the audience with goody bags has already won me over. Seriously, who doesn’t love free stuff?
Stratford Festival’s production of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It provides audience members with special prop-filled bags to use throughout the performance. After picking up the goody bags, audience members are treated to a pre-show, where the cast is out dancing in costume to folk rock music.
It’s during this pre-show that we’re introduced to Hymen (Robin Hutton), also known as the Goddess of Marriage, and she informs the audience that we’ll get to play a vital role in creating the setting for the performance.
As You Like It begins with Orlando (Cyrus Lane) complaining about the mistreatment he’s suffered at the hands of his eldest brother Oliver (John Kirkpatrick). To prove his worth and set himself apart from his family, Orlando goes to wrestle in front of Duke Frederick (Scott Wentworth) where he ends up meeting and falling in love with Rosalind (Petrina Bromley). Rosalind is the daughter of Duchess Senior (Brigit Wilson), whose brother, the Duke, recently overthrew and banished the Duchess from court. Fearing that the people love his niece Rosalind more than him, the Duke banishes Rosalind from court as well.
The Duke’s daughter, Celia (Trish Lindström), flees with Rosalind to the Forest of Arden and Rosalind gets the clever idea to dress as a man in an attempt to avoid any harm on their travels. While Rosalind is getting settled in the Forest, her lover, Orlando, also flees to the Forest out of fear of what Oliver and the Duke might do to him. Unbeknownst to Orlando, the two lovers meet while Rosalind is in disguise, and she uses her disguise to test how true Orlando’s love really is.
Personally, I think As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s less inspired comedies, as most of its plot is actually borrowed from Thomas Lodge’s prose romance Rosalynde. However, the strong cast, interactive aspects, and interesting setting breathe new life into what could have otherwise been a very dull play.
Director and Newfoundland native Jillian Keiley set her production in 1985 Newfoundland to create a different type of theatregoing experience for the audience.
Keiley explains, “One of the signatures of Newfoundland culture is that it is not performative, but participatory. As you reach into your bag and become part of a starry night, an ocean, a sheep, a whale, a fish or a fire, you’re being part of a kitchen-party culture, a dance-together culture – wherein art is not to be examined or observed, but to be experienced by all of us, together in a circle.”
Keiley makes each audience member a player by giving us the opportunity to become the setting, sing along and even get on stage for the final scene. The audience doesn’t watch this performance, but rather helps ensure it unfolds in the most creative way possible.
Infusing Newfoundland participatory culture with Shakespeare is an incredibly imaginative decision, and setting the play in the ’80s adds that extra element of fun with big hair, crazy costumes and all those shoulder pads.
Along with having the audience use props to create the setting, this production frequently breaks the fourth wall. When Rosalind first enters, she’s eating ice cream, and she offers some to an audience member who happily takes the tub from her. When the audience becomes the Forest by holding their branches up, Rosalind, Celia and Touchstone, the jester (Sanjay Talwar), struggle to make it back on stage while cutting through an aisle.
Later in the play, the audience clips love notes (adorably written and mailed to the theatre by students aged 8 to 14) to their branches so Rosalind can find them as she wanders through the audience. This is a much more upfront and personal way to interact with the audience than most productions allow.
Audience members also have the opportunity to sign up in advance for a lesson before the show to learn “Running the Goat,” a traditional dance from Newfoundland, and perform it with the cast during the final scene. I can’t imagine how amazing it must feel to be on the Festival stage and be a part of the action. Spots fill up fast for this opportunity, so be sure to sign up well in advance of your show to get one of the coveted 16 spots.
As You Like It is playing at the Festival Theatre until Oct. 22. Tickets can be purchased online at stratfordfestival.ca, where you can also sign up for the aforementioned dance lesson.