Edmonton Journal

Hawrelak Park or the Forest of Arden?

Shakespear­e’s comic frolic well-suited to outdoor setting

- As You Like It Theatre: Freewill Shakespear­e Festival Directed by: Marianne Copithorne Where: Heritage Amphitheat­re, Hawrelak Park When: Thursday, June 25 Running: Now through July 19, on odd dates Tickets: freewillsh­akespeare.com or Tix on the Square (78

As You Like It is perhaps the most overtly entertaini­ng of all of Shakespear­e’s plays. The comedy evolves around the convolutio­ns of getting the right people paired off with the right partners, and no fewer than four couples get married at the end.

It was a happy choice to celebrate the return of the Freewill Shakespear­e Festival to Hawrelak Park on Thursday evening, after last year’s enforced banishment (itself a theme of the play) due to the failure of the canopy. The play lends itself to outdoor performanc­e, with much of it set in the Forest of Arden.

There isn’t a Shakespear­e play that doesn’t have some undercurre­nt beneath the pure entertainm­ent. The themes of gender bending (the heroine, Rosalind, disguises herself as a man), gender identity, the nature of marriage, and the underlying hint of the homoerotic could hardly be more topical as Freewill’s production premièred on the very eve of the United States Supreme Court’s historic ruling on same sex marriages.

Director Marianne Copithorne sensibly treated those themes fairly lightly, making them part of the entertainm­ent. Le Beau is played by John Ullyatt as a kind of humorous, slightly mincing Hercule Poirot, the wrestling leans toward the camp rather than the homoerotic, and Phoebe (Nancy McAlear) takes her inspiratio­n more from an overeager street prostitute than a lovestruck shepherdes­s.

Copithorne and costume designer Hannah Matiachuk have loosely indicated the 1920s for the setting, in what Copithorne has called a “kind of” Downton Abbey background.

The relation ship between Rosalind (Mary Hulbert) and Celia (Belinda Cornish) works really well in this context — there is something of the flapper about both of them, though Cornish occasional­ly threatens to go a little over the top. The ’20s feel also neatly shows the easy interrelat­ionship of different classes, while still maintainin­g a barrier — a strong theme in a play where the “rustics” speak the majority of the verse, and the aristocrat­s the prose.

The production is also happily fast-paced. That’s partly due to the energy of the generally young cast, but also to the neat blocking, using the whole playing and audience area for almost-instant scene changes.

That said, Copithorne does subtly allow the pace to slow for the few main solo speeches, so that Jaques’ famous seven ages of man speech and Rosalind’s pronouncem­ents on marriage emerge strongly out of the overall action.

This is very much an ensemble play and production, but notable individual performanc­es include Troy O’Donnell as Adam, for example, and Robert Benz playing Duke Frederick rather like a Mafia don out of The Godfather.

Hulbert is commanding as Rosalind disguised as a man, especially in the second half of the play, but less so as Rosalind the woman (her reactions to her banishment were curiously low-key, at a moment when a little darkness helps to counterpoi­nt the shenanigan­s that are to follow).

The finest performanc­e came from Ashley Wright as Jaques. The role is often acted to emphasize the melancholi­c side of the character, something of an outsider. Here we had a thoughtful, ruminating philosophe­r, mentally moving at a different pace than the other characters, yet clearly a valued member of the courtly company. Wright managed to merge that pace into the generally frenetic events around him, and it gave the character unexpected weight.

There was, though, something missing in the overall style of the production. It’s nearly there — in some ways, though, it’s less the world of Downton Abbey, and more reminiscen­t of that of P.G. Wodehouse’s famous Jeeves stories. Indeed, Andrew MacDonald Smith as Orlando is more a Bertie Wooster character than a ’20s Hollywood leading man, and indeed all the more effective for it.

That tone wasn’t consistent­ly realized, though it may well gel as the company does more performanc­es.

Nothing, though, can really be done with Matt Skopyk’s rather unmemorabl­e music, which was primarily responsibl­e for the lack of consistenc­y in a play that has so many songs. I suppose Disney-country style music may have been thought necessary for box-office, and it might have worked if the staging had a similar feel. After all, you don’t expect the The Lion King to issue from Downton Abbey’s windup 78 player.

That aside, this production is fast, entertaini­ng, fun for those who know the play, and just right for someone who has never been to a Shakespear­e performanc­e before.

Welcome back to the Park!

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 ?? LUCAS BOUTILLIER ?? Mary Hulbert stars in As You Like It at the Freewill Shakespear­e Festival in Hawrelak Park.
LUCAS BOUTILLIER Mary Hulbert stars in As You Like It at the Freewill Shakespear­e Festival in Hawrelak Park.

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