I'm enough of a Shakespeare purist that I was skeptical when I heard Chicago Shakespeare Theater was staging “As You Like It,” set in the 1960s and infused with almost two dozen Beatles songs. The long pre-show entertainment on stage, featuring wrestling matches to the tune of “Money (That's What I Want),” didn't set my mind at ease, even though the commentary was amusing and I knew a wrestling match figured in the play.
But then the production actually got underway, and I was blown away by the joyous, insightful celebration of two British icons. Conceived by adapter-director Daryl Cloran, it premiered in 2018 Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival in Vancouver, British Columbia. The show combines the best of the Bard's text (or, at least, everything that's essential) with canny selections from the Beatles' songbook inserted, for the most part, in uniquely appropriate places, though sometimes they deliberately run counter to what's going on at the time.
The reason it works so well is the light-hearted tone and the immensely talented ensemble, a combination of local and Canadian actors who also sing, dance and play instruments, joining the core onstage band. The design is a delight, with Pam Johnson's sets and Carmen Alatorre's costumes morphing from the slightly mod look of the court to the ersatz greenery of the forest where the hippie exiles hang out; a rainbow-colored VW van gets put to rocking use. Gerald King's lighting highlights the changing moods, while Owen Hutchinson and Peter McBoyle's sound design supports Ben Elliott's music supervision.
Cloran's approach underscores the silliness of the plot without trivializing the potential seriousness just under the surface. Brothers betray brothers, with Duke Frederick, “the kingpin” (Kevin Gudahl), usurping and banishing Duke Senior (also Gudahl), who takes to the forest with his merry men. Oliver (Tony Carter), the eldest son of the recently deceased Sir Rowland de Boys), plots to murder the youngest, Orlando (Liam Quealy), who seeks his fortune at a wrestling match against the champion, Charles (Austin Eckert; also a musician), then heads to the forest with old family servant, Adam (Steven Pringle).
Orlando and Rosalind (Lakeisha Renee) see each other for the first time at the wrestling match, and it's love at first sight, sealed with “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” But Duke Frederick becomes suspicious of his banished brother's daughter and banishes her too, breaking his agreement with his own daughter, Celia (Melanie Brezill; after Nov. 14 Ayanna Bria Bakari), who can't bear to be parted from her cousin. So both women flee to the forest, with Rosalind disguised as the boy Ganymede and Celia as a shepherdess. They take with them the court jester, Touchstone (Kayvon Khoshkam).
Once in the forest, the disguised Rosalind discovers that Orlando has been adorning the trees with love poems about her (some with Beatles lyrics), and ostensibly to cure him of his love, she convinces him to pretend that Ganymede is Rosalind and taunts and abuses him in return. This is the most compelling development in most productions but here it gets competition on several fronts.
The slightly loopy shepherd Silvius (Michael Dashefsky) is in love with disdainful country girl Phoebe (Heidi Kettenring), who steals the scene with “Something” as she falls for Ganymede instead. Touchstone only meets goatherd Audrey (Lachrisa Grandberry) in the forest, but her powerhouse voice elevates their duet “When I'm Sixty Four,” and Khoshkam, who's reminiscent of a cross between Austin Powers and Elton John (look at his boots), is a fun and funny Touchstone whether he's crashing the fourth wall (“Let's hide...after all, it's Shakespeare”) or raising the roof with “Helter Skelter” or ….well, doing or saying almost anything.
The other standout is Deborah Hay's melancholy Jaques, a role usually taken by a man. Extremely petite, with a shock of Andy Warhol-white hair, she brings a believable gravity to her lines, including the famous “All the World's a Stage” speech, and illuminates both “The Fool on the Hill” and “I Am the Walrus” in new ways.
More musical highlights come from forest lord Amiems (Eckert), whose wailing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is just beautiful, another forest lord's “Let It Be” and Celia and Oliver's “Good Day Sunshine” (one of my favorite Beatles songs). Quealy's Orlando gets high marks for his breakout dancing; he really captures the feel of the period.
With four weddings on the horizon, “As You Like It” ends with “Here Comes the Sun,” “Across the Universe” and “All You Need Is Love.” Anyone who leaves the theater not believing that's true — or could be — doesn't have much of a heart.