Shakespeare in High Park’s Festively Fun and Flowery As You Like It Does the Bard Proud

Canadian Stage’s As You Like It at the Dream in High Park, Toronto. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

The Toronto Theatre Review: Canadian Stage/Dream in High Park’s As You Like It

By Ross

I’ve always loved a good Shakespeare in the Park (as long as it isn’t another Midsummer Night’s Dream – I’ve just seen far too many of them – although that one in Regent’s Park, London that I saw a few years back was pretty darn phenomenal, with all those old fashioned peddle bikes and such…but that’s another story). With that being said, it’s a funny thing to report, that this summer there is a funny parallel process that is happening for me across borders. Sadly, I am missing the second production of the Delacorte Theatre season by The Public Theater with the Public Works’ community-enriched musical adaptation of As You Like It in Central Park (Adapted by Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery, and directed by Laurie Woolery). So, I packed away that disappointment, and instead, filled up a picnic basket with a blanket and some beverages (shoulda brought some seat cushions!), and made my way across town to Toronto’s High Park to attend Canadian Stage‘s family-friendly and flowery fun production of their As You Like It. And what a festive dream it is.

Wrapped up and planted in a sea of fertile joy, this smartly trimmed-down and thoroughly enjoyable recreation finds fun in their manufactured whimsical forest of delight and childlike demenour. Directed with playful energy by Anand Rajaram (Rohinton Mistry’s The Scream), this As You Like It grows up joyfully before our very eyes, asking us to gleefully imagine a world where flowers evolve into players of Shakespeare, and where an assortment of creatures talk and strut their hour (and a half) on the stage for us all to take in with cartoonish delight under the starry summer skies of Toronto. Summoning the actors to gather together in neutral wear with the blow of a shelled horn, the team of talented and playful artists scamper off to don festive and floral costumes that bring to mind all types of florets that match the hand-painted colorful blooms that adorn the simple yet sweet backdrop, all designed with a childlike wonder by Anne Barber and Brad Harley of Shadowland Theatre, with a loving lighting design by Logan Raju Cracknell (Bad Hats’ Alice in Wonderland).

Shawn DeSaouza-Coelho and Paolo Santalucia in Canadian Stage’s As You Like It. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

There is a solid sense of wonder and play in this charming outdoor space, the first Shakeaperian production in three years for Canadian Stage’s Dream in High Park. It skips in with a wondrous tamberine joy, determined to deliver Rajaram’s 90-minute version of Shakespeare’s playful comedy with as much family friendly energy as possible. This condensed version is delightfully simplistic without losing any of its charm, never taking itself all that seriously, except in how it fancifully plays with the text and the audience.

Now “all rise for Duke Frederick!” No, I mean it. All rise! …Up ya get. Now, that’s better….

Running through September 4th at the High Park Amphitheatre, Rajaram’s As You Like It, sprouts up with two brothers, Orlando (Paolo Santalucia) and Oliver (Shawn DeSaouza-Coelho) falling out with one another as only two brothers can. Mainly about the way one is being poorly treated in comparison to the other. All doesn’t end all that well, I’m just saying. Meanwhile, over in the Duke’s court, Rosalind (Bren Eastcott), daughter of the usurped Duke Senior (Ken Hall) is finding it ever so difficult to hold her sharp and witty tongue around her uncle, Duke Frederick (also played beautifully by Ken Hall), even with her strong bond and friendship with Frederick’s sweet and hilariously vocal daughter, Celia, well played by Astrid Atherly (LOT’s Dreamgirls). In a moment of condensed conflict and sisterly solidarity, both daughters find themselves running off into the woods (but not the Sondheim version – that one is crowded enough already with the killer Broadway revival bringing joy to all that see it). The two, along with their loyal Touchstone, escape the confining world for something filled to the brim with earthy delights and utter caring kindness, all because Celia’s father has unfairly banished Rosalind, but not before she eyes the handsome Orlando and falls deep into googly-eyed love, as they all seem to at some point with someone in a hilarious moment of hypnotic joy.

With all the festivities and hijinks that scamper off under the twinkling stars that is ever-so-typical of all Shakespearian cross-dressing confusion, this As You Like It plots most playfully to collide all that confusion with as much love and romance as possible. Inside the charming Forest of Arden, this perfectly fun, edited formulation unfolds with delight, with endless possibilities of fun and frolic at its beck and call. It’s quite the fantastic fit, for all that love and confusion to unravel with such playful devotion in those idyllic woods. It does this classic pastoral comedy proud. As does this cast of well-formed comedic actors, who do so well with all those mistaken identities and romantic tumbles that ultimately lead, as they typically do, to a wedding. But in As You Like It, it isn’t just one, but a ‘wedding times four’, once all the mess and muddle get figured out plainly and adoringly in the end. Peace and stability are fully reinstated, and the world where all these characters live sprout up with joy all around them. If only that could happen so easily in our world…

Bren Eastcott and Paolo Santalucia in Canadian Stage’s As You Like It. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

The actors find fun in all the opportunities presented, giving wild and wonderful physicalities and accents to each and ever moment. it’s quite the bloom to behold, watching these talented thespians unpack endless comedic potential and distinction within. The budding bar is raised, particularly by the radiate Bren Eastcott (Tarragon’s Orestes) as the wonderfully charming Rosalind, matched perfectly throughout by the engaging and adorable Paolo Santalucia (Soulpepper’s Spoon River) as her loving wrestler, Orlando, who finds honesty and cuteness in his utter silliness. Ken Hall (TBS’s “People of Earth“) as both the presenting Dukes deliver jubilation inside every entrance and every ‘ask’ for assistance in rising up and forward. It’s a touching and ebullience experience that is equal parts heart and humor.

The hilarious Landon Doak (Bad Hats’ Alice in Wonderland), stepping lightly and lovingly into the part of Touchstone with script-in-hand, does a fantastic job delivering the gleeful proposal forward, never failing to make us laugh as he draws us in with his authentic love and care. But it is the glorious voice of Belinda Corpuz (Factory’s Lady Sunrise) that is the furthest thing from ragged around. In her classic minstrel-style shoes, she enraptures us with her warm singing voice under that greenwood tree with grace and beauty. Singing the songs of five contemporary recording artists, including Serena Ryder, Kiran Ahluwalia, Lacey Hill, Maryem Tollar, and an anonymous contributor (Love a compelling anonymous contributor!), Corpuz caressingly asks us to come hither into these woods, dutifully elevating the magic of the night with effortless grace and poetry. Much like the wonderful Maja Ardal (4thLine’s Wishful Seeing) and her loving delivery of the iconic and well-known “All the world’s a stage…” speech. Playing Orlando’s faithful old servant, Ardal brings vulnerability and tenderness to the whole, unpacking truth and beauty that we all can easily and happily breathe in.

It’s exactly the kind of pleasure that we would happily go foraging in the woods for when we were young and filled with wonder, if we had the chance. To find playfulness and romance at every turn and in every flower. And I hope all those kids in attendence were able to take it all in before falling blissfully asleep in their parents’ arms as they make their way home when this play all joyfully wraps itself up. I can’t say that I’m still not somewhat sad and dissappointed that I’m missing Taub and Woolery’s musical version at the Public’s Delacorte Theatre, but here in the lovely and effortlessly charming High Park Ampitheatre, I am happily content watching this sweetly-adapted, quick-witted production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, produced by Canadian Stage under the moon and stars of Toronto. It unleashes the sweet childlike aroma of the innocent flower and the forest, and shares it with love, wonder, and utter delight to all those lucky enough to take it all in.

Shawn DeSaouza-Coelho and Paolo Santalucia in Canadian Stage’s As You Like It at the Dream in High Park, Toronto. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

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