by Jeff Grygny
It could have begun as a challenge towards the end of a long night of drinking. How many Beatles songs can you make fit into a Shakespeare play? That’s the premise of the delightful new production of As You Like It at the Milwaukee Rep. Brimming with invention and good cheer, and overflowing with affection for its sources, the show seems designed to get us through the gloomy Wisconsin winter and boost our spirits in difficult times.
It’s not such a crazy idea to mix the Beatles and the Bard. The famed director Peter Brook taught that Shakespeare’s language consists of narrative that moves the story, and poetry which should be considered as music. But the poetry that moved Elizabethan audiences often doesn’t speak to us—so why not substitute music that does? A recent local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Voices Found Repertory brought in pop songs to fine effect. And since As You Like It is all about love, why not wed it with the other most successful artists ever to spring from England’s green and pleasant land, whose favorite word is “love”? We can thank the Canadian director Daryl Cloran for this brilliant yet somehow inevitable idea. The show opened to roaring success in Vancouver, and recently played in Chicago, whence the Rep’s Artistic Director Mark Clemens was able to snag some of the performers, along with Cloran to direct the current production. And lucky us: we get to enjoy it!
Cloran skims off the play’s antiquities to reveals a wise and witty screwball comedy as quirky as anything by Wes Anderson or the Coen Brothers. He directs with a genius for details, filling every moment with little gestures and comic flourishes in the tale of fair Rosalind and her sturdy swain Orlando on their bumpy road to happiness—so many wonderful grace notes, it would be a crime to reveal any of them. Meantime, the evergreen songs of Lennon and McCartney bring the character’s heightened feelings in rock n’ roll beats. People who know the play well will be amazed by the aptness and cleverness of Cloran’s translations; everyone else will just laugh, cheer, and perhaps let their heartstrings tug a little tear of joy now and then.
Set in the exotic land of British Columbia, in the distant long ago of the 1960s, the play opens with an elaborate preamble set in the woolly world of pro wresting (which makes sense, as it is indeed a wrestling match that sets Rosalind and Orlando on their paths). Members of the extremely game band play costumed contestants in a series of pratfalls and clownish clinches. The entertainment value of this will vary with how much you find pro wrestling amusing—but it gives the excuse to drop lots of Beatles references, and sets up the greedy, exploitative world that our characters will soon be propelled out of and into the romantic Forest of Arden.
Each player in the warm, multitalented cast creates a very relatable human being; they move like modern people and when they talk, they sound like people talking, so the comedy flows naturally from a real place. As the girl-buddy duo of Rosalind and Celia, Savannah L. Jackson and Lizzy Brooks share effortless rapport and sister power. Brooks’ facial expressions speak comic volumes; Jackson shows the joys and torments of infatuation, while bringing brio to her musical solos. The incredibly light-footed Justin Gregory Lopez is a powerful yet tender Orlando, while Don Noble as the Duke-in exile channels The Dude in sandals and long gray hair; his hippie inflections seem a bit spot-on, until you realize that he’s actually making some very wise observations.
The show’s two philosopher-clowns, Adam Wesley Brown and Trish Lindstrom, are brilliant contrasts: Brown as the urbanite Touchstone, so out of place in the rustic setting, makes free with adlibs and flawless physical schtick, while Lindstrom, as the melancholy Jaques, tricked out in Andy Warhol drag and Joan Didion’s world-weary clarity, is a miracle of subtle anticomedy. Her renditions of Fool on the Hill and I am the Walrus simply must be seen to be believed.
The onstage musicians all play incidental roles, and while they don’t try to impersonate the Fab Four (except when George Harrison makes a cameo as Hymen, the god of marriage), their general good humored, come-what-may attitude is reminiscent of A Hard Day’s Night. Pam Johnson’s illuminated set wonderfully recalls the sixties, creating a wide palette of colorful energies, and Ben Elliott’s music direction wisely doesn’t imitate the Beatles’ stylings, but hits the iconic touches, as when a trombone suddenly appears in “All You Need Is Love.”
This As You Like It is the most entertaining, richest, most heartfelt musical I’ve seen at the Rep. And why not keep this fertile mash-up going? The Rolling Stones’ Macbeth, anyone? How about King Lear with the music of The Doors? In the words of Jaques: “More, more, I prithee, more.”
Milwaukee Repertory Theatre presents
As You Like It
by William Shakespeare
Adapted and Directed by Daryl Cloran
Conceived by Daryl Cloran and the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival
playing through March 20