Canadian Stage’s 2022 Dream in High Park has certainly lived up to its name. I emerged from the experience as if from a dream: I’m didn’t understand some of it, I can’t remember most of it, but gosh, was it a fun experience.
In fact, about thirty minutes into the show, my theatre companion, who had never seen one of Shakespeare’s plays, leaned over and whispered, “this is good, right? I have no idea what’s going on, but… I feel like they’re doing a good job?”
Indeed they were.
It’s no easy feat to cut out an entire third of what is usually a three-hour adventure through the forest of Arden. But the team behind As You Like It managed to condense the story into a bag of bite-sized snacks full of jokes, gags, and visual splendor. Picture a bag of gushers: flamboyant and full of flavour, the 120-minute show was broken into short, palatable segments interspersed with lengthy, visually stimulating transitions, and stunning vocal interludes from Belinda Corpuz, this production’s Amiens. While two hours isn’t exactly a short play, this production is a frivolous and fun treat: the perfect way to spend an evening in the park.
It was light, it was deliciously campy, and it was an absolute joy to the eyes. Bright colours and whimsical flowers filled every inch of the stage, all courtesy of Shadowland Theatre. The veritable buffet of floral costumes made it easy to distinguish characters and their allegiances, quite the accomplishment in a show where several actors tackled multiple roles.
Director Anand Rajaram has placed a strong emphasis on the comedy of the piece; although at times heavy-handed, the overall result is a delightful romp. While pieces of scenes have been cut from the play entirely for the sake of time, others were altered to incorporate a new joke or to clarify a scene. Some of the adjustments land beautifully – Leigh Cameron’s Phebe repeatedly calling Silvius “Silvio” was a simple yet wildly effective comedic device, and her complete lack of care when corrected only added to the gag – while others, like an extended and entirely added fart joke, didn’t quite hit home, and merely stalled the plot. Several nuanced jokes in the original text were lost when played out onstage, but the majority of the show retained the quick-witted, bawdy humour of the piece.
In a strong cast seemingly more versed in comedy than the Bard (though not in a bad way), there are several particularly notable performances. Ken Hall, a master of physical comedy, is incomparable in his dual roles as the Dukes Ferdinand (Duke Senior in the original text) and Frederick. His Duke Ferdinand in particular is a hoot: every time he walked onstage, his gait and not-so-subtle interactions with the audience were met with thunderous laughter. Marty Adams transforms flawlessly, hilariously, and completely as Charles the wrestler, Silvius, and a short-but-incredibly-sweet turn as William. Each one of Adams’ small character roles became an absolute scene-stealer, in the best way possible. Paolo Santalucia’s understated Orlando is at his best when sparring with Dylan Roberts’ Jacques, and a brilliant piece of physical comedy involving a branch and some ill-advised flourishes received some of the biggest laughs of the night.
But the real standout of the show is Astrid Atherly, making her Canadian Stage debut as Celia. Her Celia is relatable, honest, and perfectly over-the-top while still being “that one friend we all have.” Every single line and reaction garnered a laugh from the audience, not because they felt forced or inappropriate in the moment, but because they were genuinely funny. Her chemistry with Bren Eastcott’s charming and effective Rosalind gives the impression that the two were sisters rather than cousins, which is kind of the point. And her operatic singing voice? There may still be grass-stains on my chin from how often my jaw dropped. With an easy handle of the language and an astounding command of what is often an overlooked role, I can’t wait to see Atherly’s journey through the Toronto theatre scene – she is certainly one to watch.
For Shakespeare purists, who revel in the rhythm of iambic pentametre and enjoy a more traditional production, this may not be the show for you. The alterations to the text make it impossible to strictly adhere to the technical elements of Shakespeare’s works, and a few of the edits ignored the jokes in the text and replaced them with more obvious, perhaps less effective gags. But if you consider yourself a Shakespeare purist, you probably wouldn’t enjoy a two hour feast of colours and jokes in a park anyways. My recommendation? Lighten up, and come have a laugh – it’s an absolute dream.
As You Like It is playing in Canadian Stage’s Dream in High Park until September 4th, 2022. For tickets and more information about the show, visit their website.