If England is famous worldwide for two things, it’s the Beatles and Shakespeare. Weaving these two very different artists together in a play may make you cry “zounds!” but methinks there is more in common betwixt these British poets than one may expect.
The Chicago Shakespeare Theater is ready to welcome audiences to live shows (provided you bring proof of vaccination), and like Blues Traveler’s famous hit “Hook,“ they know what will bring you back: just over 20 classic tunes from the greatest rock ’n’ roll band of all time, coupled with the Bard’s famous comedic hit, As You Like It.
I’ll admit, I had my doubts, but amazingly this coupling really does work, with some songs providing spot-on commentary on the plot, replacing existing tunes and poetry from the play, and others bringing new meaning and perspectives. And some songs are just sing-along fun since, after all, it’s the “Fab Four.” There is a rockin’ full band, credited as Forest Lords (Adam Wesley Brown, Michael Dashefsky, Austin Eckert, Kieran McCabe, and Kurt Schweitz) who also play various characters throughout the show.
After more than a year and a half stuck inside watching family members figure out Zoom, escape to the forest of Arden in the 1960s for a light, joyous, and toe-tappingly entertaining evening. As You Like It is a typical Shakespearean comedy, a fairy tale involving banishment, love-at-first-sight, a bit of cross-dressing, mistaken identity, silly jokes, physical comedy, and all’s well that ends well.
Oliver (Tony Carter), like a wicked witch, hates his brother Orlando (Liam Quealy) because he’s decent and likeable. So he banishes him. Similarly, after Duke Frederick (Kevin Gudahl) banishes his older brother Duke Senior (also Gudahl), he exiles his niece Rosalind (Lakeisha Renee) for the same reason.
But Orlando and Rosalind have fallen madly and instantly in love, so to stay safe (and to propel the comedy) Rosalind dons male garb and goes by Ganymede, page to her cousin Celia (Melanie Brezill; Ayanna Bria Bakari assumes the role on November 16), now disguised as a shepherdess. Touchstone (Kayvon Khoshkam), the court jester, accompanies them, adding numerous guffaws.
They all head to the Forest of Arden for some good old hippie living. Orlando meets Rosalind disguised as Ganymede, who proceeds to school him on the ways of wooing a woman. All this mistaken identity leads to some delightfully hetero love rhombuses, but do not fear; by the end everyone is properly coupled to the tune of “All You Need Is Love.” Sure, it’s a bit cheesy, but it delivers enough feel-good moments and nostalgia to take us out of our heads for just a while.
As You Like It
Through 12/5: Wed 1 PM, Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM; also Tue 11/9-11/30, 7:30 PM, Wed 11/10 and 11/17, 7:30 PM; open captioned performances Wed 11/10, 1 and 7:30 PM, ASL duo-interpreted performance Fri 11/19, 7:30 PM, and audio described performance Sun 11/21, 2 PM; Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand, 312-595-5600, chicagoshakes.com, $49-$90.
This production of As You Like It, adapted and directed by Daryl Cloran and conceived as part of the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival in Vancouver, Canada, is a delightful celebration of life and love. It is a self-aware production that knows what it is, a fun ride interested less in plot than in the joy of the journey. Renee shines with vivacity as Rosalind, the most central character of the play. Her beautiful duet with Brezill’s plucky Celia of “We Can Work it Out” at the opening of Act 1 brings new relevance to this song. They reunite for a duet in Act 2 with the lovely but more on the nose “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” a satisfying collusion of Beatles lyrics and Shakespearean plot. While Renee’s acting and vocals are on point, she’s not the musical center of the show, singing in about half of the songs.
Khoshkam hilariously steals the show as the fool Touchstone, leading a fantastically arranged fight/dance version of “She Loves You” early in the show, thanks to Jonathan Hawley Purvis’s choreography. Khoshkam’s energy and physicality imbue Touchstone with an enjoyable appetite for life. He performs a sensational version of “Helter Skelter” reflecting his own playful use of language and a killer duet of “When I’m 64” with Lachrisa Grandberry’s Audrey, the young goatherd with whom he’s fallen in love, and whose outstanding vocal chops elicit audible gasps of amazement from the audience. I wish she’d been given more chances to shine. Gudahl is wonderful as joyous old hippie Duke Senior, and Quealy’s Orlando exudes sunshine and radiant energy. Deborah Hay also stands out as the melancholic Jaques, leading dynamically physical renditions of “I Am the Walrus” and “The Fool on the Hill” back to back.
Shakespeare’s comedy sets up various rivaling dichotomies; life in court and life in the country, youth and age, realism and romanticism, the lively and the reflective life, and mirth and melancholy. Each polarity is represented by different characters. But instead of arguing for one or the other being better, the comedy simply has fun exploring the intricacy of the argument through each person.
This idea of escaping the city life for a more bucolic existence where one may discover new truths previously obscured is an ancient one, but one that rings especially poignant as we enter a post-pandemic world. As the ensemble delivers “Here Comes The Sun” near the end of the show, it no doubt hits home for everyone that we have been through a long cold lonely winter and are ready for better times ahead.