- Associate Toronto Theatre Critic
Breathing fresh, modern relevance into a play written some 420 years ago is challenging to say the least. Sure, there are themes and archetypes that transcend time, but when the play is old enough to be seemingly written in a different language, the challenge certainly remains for any theatre company tackling the works of William Shakespeare. The Driftwood Theatre Group takes on this challenge so effortlessly with their production of Rosalynde (or, As You Like It) that you find yourself wondering why Shakespeare is so notorious for being difficult to understand in the first place.
Considering one of the central themes of this comedy is the ever-changing nature of the human experience, it is quite fitting that director D. Jeremy Smith decided to set it in Canada during a time of great change and upheaval — 1918. World War I was coming to an end, Canada was coming into its own as a country, and women across the nation were deeply committed to the struggle for equality. Driftwood hints at the main character’s journey for identity with its renaming of the play to put her front and centre (and as a clever call-back to the fact that the source material Shakespeare borrowed heavily from was a Thomas Lodge novel titled — you guessed it — Rosalynde).
After a chance meeting with a stranger who pulls her out of her melancholy funk, Rosalynde is confronted with adverse circumstances that cause her to flee her city home, with her best friend and her court’s fool in tow, and venture into the unknown — the forest wild — to search for solace, identity, and true love.
Although a relatively late addition to the cast, Sochi Fried infuses her Rosalynde with such a knife-sharp wit and confident demeanor that you feel she could play this character in her sleep. The audience is meant to believe that Rosalynde is always the smartest person in the room, and Ms. Fried convinces us that she is. As Rosalynde’s best friend, Celia, Ximena Huizi brings to her character a warm enthusiasm that believably allows Celia to keep Rosalynde from becoming too cynical. Ms. Huizi and Ms. Fried have a wonderful on-stage chemistry that makes their scenes riveting. Some might argue that the quality of a Shakespearean comedy is only as good as the quality of its fool. If that is true, then this is a high-quality production. Geoffrey Armour brings endless wit, playfulness, and wonderful physical comedy to his portrayal of Touchstone, without ever making it too much. And the fast-paced witty banter that happens when Mr. Armour shares words with Ms. Fried and Ms. Huizi is very funny and very entertaining. As Orlando, Ngabo Nabea brings a smooth charm to his character, and delivers Orlando’s big speeches so naturally and easily that you’d assume he’s been speaking in iambic pentameter his whole life.
Puppetry is used extensively throughout the play, in various forms, to great effect. Speaking with Mr. Smith (who, apart from being the show’s director is also Driftwood’s Artistic Director), I learned that the use of puppets in one sense was the answer to a logistical problem: How do you cast a show with a limited budget that has a final scene with 16 characters on stage at the same time? The answer is … puppets! It is quite evident, however, that Smith’s use of puppets in the show — mainly as representation of characters in the wild of the forest — helps to create a stronger sense of the otherworldly nature of the forest, creating a stronger distinction between the city and the wilderness. It is in the masterful performance of these puppet characters by Megan Miles, Eric Woolfe, and Derek Kwan that this concept ultimately works and sets this production apart from other productions of As You Like It. So easily are you made to forget that these beautiful and quirky creations are actually being operated by people. (And whoever had a hand in creating the “suitcase sheep” deserves some kind of award.)
Caroline Gillis gives a wonderfully understated performance in her portrayal of the melancholy Jaques. There are some speeches in Shakespeare’s collection of plays that have been done and redone and parodied to the point where they can easily transcend their own meaning when delivered in context. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” and Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damn spot” come to mind. Ms. Gillis, however, delivers the famous “All the world’s a stage” speech with the simple sincerity of a person musing sadly upon the stages of human experience and the awareness of her own mortality.
The costumes were simple but appropriately matched to the time. The set isn’t more than a constantly changing collection of barrel-like objects of various sizes, but when your backdrop is the natural trees and plants of Ontario’s parks and gardens, what more do you need for a pastoral play?
If you are looking for a theatre experience with wit, wonder, and a touch of magic, that takes Shakespeare far away from the dusty classroom and places it in the natural splendor of the outdoors, you must see this excellent production of Rosalynde (or, As You Like It).
Photo of Sochi Fried (left) and Ximena Huizi provided by Dahlia Katz.
The show is being staged until August 12th at outdoor venues across Ontario as far-flung as Bobcaygeon, Kitchener, and Napanee, with several performances in the GTA. The full tour list and further details can be found at driftwoodtheatre.com.
All performances start at 7:30 pm and are either pay what you can or free (with donations accepted).
The show is approximately two hours with no intermission.