It’s a safe bet you’ve never realized the universality of A Lover and His Lass, that sweet and buoyant song from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, until you’ve heard it dressed up, via Appalachia, as a bluegrass tune. Unlikely as it sounds, it works splendidly, at least in the production of As You Like It at the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival in Prescott, south of Ottawa.
“I don’t know why I included bluegrass. It was just instinctive,” said Richard Sheridan Willis, who directed the show and is in his first year as the festival’s new artistic director. Willis was speaking with ARTSFILE about his new role before a recent performance of As You Like It.
Whether he really was working purely from instinct – and there are elements of that Appalachian/country gloss that he evidently didn’t think all the way through – Willis’ take on the play is fresh and spirited. That accords with his awareness that, like many theatres, audience numbers need to grow, but interpretations of beloved plays that are too outlandish or experimental will do the opposite.
The British-born Willis, a theatre veteran who spent three summers acting on the outdoor St. Lawrence stage, has introduced other strategies to build audiences.
In addition to calling this summer’s festival, which features As You Like It and Taming of the Shrew running back-to-back, A Season of Love, he’s resurrected and modified an older St. Lawrence tradition by hosting Monday Night Live. The series of staged readings, music and magic takes place at a new, storefront theatre in a historical retail space in Prescott.
He also organized Tudorfest, a three-day Elizabethan-themed fair, earlier in the current season.
As well, he’s made changes in the amphitheatre where audiences watch the shows with the St. Lawrence River as backdrop.
He has enlarged the stage and introduced mics for the performers. Mics are not something we’re used to in local, professional theatre, and the unnatural quality they give to voices – at least to voices in this venue – can distract. However, they prove their worth when waterfront or other noise makes hearing difficult, as happened a couple of times during As You Like It.
One other change Willis has made: This season’s programming. When he inherited the job from outgoing artistic director Rona Waddington, King Lear and Robin Hood were on the bill. That was nixed.
“We’ve got King Lear going on across the river,” he said when we met, nodding to the U.S., visible on the far shore. “With everything going on, we needed to lighten the season. We needed more love. So I said, ‘Let’s do two comedies that have substance.’”
The result: A Season of Love, including Shakespeare’s perennially popular As You Like It.
Willis has assembled a uniformly strong cast for that story of young love, mistaken identity and family reconciliation that’s set in the Forest of Arden, where lovers Rosalind and Orlando find themselves after various family fallings out.
Katherine Gauthier’s Rosalind is a beguiling character. She morphs over the course of the story from giggling girlishness to young womanhood, her steel will and self-possession gathering force in the same way her gender insists on peeking through her temporary male disguise as Ganymede.
Watching her intended mate, the impetuous and not a little starry-eyed Orlando (Alex Furber), one suspects he’ll initially be no match for the focused Rosalind when the two unite in marriage but that he’ll eventually grow into himself. Like his lover, he is a good, moral person, a quality that courses through Furber’s performance.
Elsewhere in Arden, Jesse Nerenberg gives us Touchstone the fool, his body as agile as his brain. Rose Napoli’s Celia, Rosalind’s devoted cousin, is bright and determined. Eva Foote works wonders in bringing a bred-in-the-bone honesty to the minor character Audrey, who becomes Touchstone’s beloved. And Elizabeth Saunders burrows into the complex melancholy of Jaques, Arden’s resident cynic. Saunders’s rendering of Jaques’ famous monologue “All the world’s a stage” is rich and heartfelt enough to leave your eyes pricking – not an easy thing with such a familiar speech.
As You Like It is full of song, and Willis’ bluegrass decision proves masterful with “Blow, blow thou winter wind,” which follows Jaque’s monologue. Piercing and near-dissonant (Melissa Morris, who also plays the firebrand Phoebe, is the show’s musical director and composer), it brings a whole new meaning to the classic description of bluegrass as “high and lonesome.”
The bluegrass/country theme, which at one point includes a rendition of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire that segues into the Carter Family’s Wildwood Flower, also gets confusing. For instance, it’s picked up in Vanessa Imeson’s costumes that combine doublets with tooled cowboy boots, even though the boots tell us nothing about the characters, and the strong Appalachian influences on bluegrass are more likely to be associated with coal miners’ clodhoppers than Nashville country singers’ regalia.
Equally puzzling, Imeson’s set features cacti, which aren’t exactly indigenous to bluegrass country and relate to nothing else in the show.
Costume and set choices aside, As You Like It succeeds in joyful fashion. King Lear will just have to wait his turn.
As You Like It was reviewed July 31. The St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival continues until Aug. 18. Information: 613-925-5788, stlawrenceshakespeare.ca