jamie konchak, jeff schwager & alexis milligan
Two Planks and a Passion’s production of the 1599 pastoral comedy As You Like It, directed expertly by Ken Schwartz, is one of the best productions of a William Shakespeare play that I have ever seen in Nova Scotia. This company has taken a play that has often been dismissed as being inferior, silly or sentimental and allowed it to speak compellingly and with immediacy to our contemporary society.
The story centers on the banishment and betrayal of one brother by another and investigates the concept of love at first sight versus the true love of knowing someone intimately. Shakespeare gives us two formidable heroines here. Rosalind, the daughter of the banished Duke, feels the wrath of her Uncle, Duke Frederick, and nimbly devises a plan for her own escape. Her cousin and best friend Celia, the doted upon only child of Duke Frederick, renounces the riches of her position, boldly refuses to concede to her father’s wishes and insists on leaving the Court incognito with her cousin. Rosalind is in love with Orlando, who has also been banished by the Duke. All three end up in the Forest of Arden where order will eventually be restored and love will triumph over violence and greed.
There is so much that is fascinating in this production that it is difficult to know where to begin. The command of Shakespeare’s language by this company of actors is extraordinary. The way they use inflection and pauses effortlessly transport lines that can sound dated and be difficult to understand into the immediate present. Michael McPhee plays Orlando with gorgeous earnestness. Although he has been much abused and insulted by his older brother, Oliver, the callousness of the world has not robbed him of his capacity to feel love, to seek joy and to believe in a brighter future. He is tender where Oliver, played by Scott Baker, is crude. The beating of his heart belongs to Rosalind, played with enormous depth by Alexis Milligan, and indeed when the two first meet they trip and fall over their words, using the silence more than lines to communicate waves’ worth of emotion. So often in classic works, whether Shakespeare or fairytales, the female characters exist entirely in relation to the men in their lives and other women are often their adversaries. Milligan’s Rosalind’s love, loyalty and appreciation for her cousin and best friend Celia, played with grace and spunk by Jamie Konchak, exceeds her girlish infatuation with Orlando. Indeed, Celia risks her life to help Rosalind and we believe this Rosalind would take a bullet brazenly for her. Their friendship is a glorious celebration of the bond of sisterhood, while also an eager quest for adventure and toward liberty that makes the audience want to stand up and cheer for their gusto, empowerment and strength.
In Shakespeare’s time, of course, Rosalind and Celia (and the Shepherdess Phebe) would have been played by boys, and so much of the comedy would be inherent in the hidden identity plot, seeing a boy dressed as a girl dress as a boy to try to woo a man, while being pursued by an infatuated girl, played by a boy. This likely would have made it more difficult for audiences to see As You Like It as a play realistically representing the relationships between men and women in their society. Yet, when Milligan transforms from Rosalind to Ganymede and befriends Orlando as a young boy, while continuing to flirt with him in a strange and gender-bendy sort of way, this play becomes quite serious and intellectually fascinating. On the cusp of the 17th Century it would not have been considered proper for Rosalind and Orlando to “hang out” and get to know one another before they were married. But through Ganymede, Rosalind is provided with the opportunity to test the depth of her love, not just the infatuation she feels for this young man, but whether she is able to be friends with him. She also wonders about the limits of his love. Could another man dissuade him away from her? And, also, so strangely, she seems to be subtly implying the question to him, “Could you love me… WOULD you love me… even if I were a boy?” Within the context of 17th Century England this question can be seen to mean that Rosalind knows that she is not a conventional woman, she has known liberty and has strength of character and will not allow her husband to confine and control her. Orlando must accept that she, as Rosalind, has a Ganymede within her, or else she will not wed him. In a more modern context Milligan also seems to be delving into the question of whether Orlando’s love exceeds Rosalind’s physical body. Is she still his Rosalind if her body is male, but her soul is the same? Indeed, at times it is difficult to tell if Milligan’s Ganymede is seducing McPhee’s Orlando only in counterfeit play or not. It is a testament to this comedy’s intensity of dramatic action that when, at the play’s end, Orlando hesitates, and the audience is united in bated breath, hinged on McPhee’s unreadable expression.
The beautiful woods at Ross Creek Centre for the Arts make a perfect Forest of Arden and one can see Shakespeare’s use of the idyllic countryside as a counter to the corruption and ruthlessness inherent in the city. There is a beautiful moment where McPhee’s Orlando happens upon the banished Duke and his men in the woods and is genuinely baffled by their sincere kindness toward him. The choice to have Graham Percy playing both the evil Duke Frederick and the Banished Duke, further sets up the idea that the city and the countryside are counterparts. One represents life as it should be, while the other represents life as it is. There is an allusion at the beginning of the play to Robin Hood, and indeed, Percy’s Dukes reminded me of the Disney version of King John and King Richard, one being so obviously self loathing, while the other was jolly and cheerful as Santa Claus, even in the most desperate situations.
There is not a weak link among the company of actors in this production. Hilary Adams gives a riveting performance as Phebe. I saw her earlier this year give a ferocious performance as the Daughter in Six Characters in Search of an Author; write her name down-she is certainly a young artist with a bright future ahead of her! Daniel Lilliford is at times heartbreaking, both as Adam and as Corin. Chris O’Neill has some hilarious moments as Audrey, the unfortunate “dull witted goat girl.” Ryan Rogerson plays Charles, the Wrestler, who is in the play for maybe ten minutes, with so much wild, exuberant magnitude, while also suggesting much depth underneath. I wish Shakespeare had written a whole play about him. Burgandy Code plays Melancholy Jaques. It is interesting, in this play especially, to have a woman playing this role, and not as part of any overt concept, simply because Code is able to traverse Jaques’ journey with as much truth and emotion as a man. This nicely echoes, I think, one of the themes of the play. As with Rogerson’s Charles, I wanted more of Code’s Jaques. He has become world-weary, it is suggested that he has seen too much, and given what treachery the other characters have encountered in the city, it is easy to assume that Jaques has borne witness to much grief and pain. He is a reminder that even amongst the idyllic countryside, the world is always far from perfect. Code’s performance is subtle, rooted in a bitterness that tries to be cheeky, but often gets too marred in sadness. Yet, there is something undeniably compelling about Jaques. I felt like Code knew the secret, but it was one she couldn’t quite express. Jeff Schwager is at the very pinnacle of hysterical as Touchstone, the Court Jester. Shakespearean fools can be difficult for modern audiences because Elizabethan concepts of Jesters, Fools, Clowns and Wit are quite disparate with the words as we understand them today. Schwager makes all these barriers disappear in his playfulness, his physical comedy and sense of silliness and the suave delivery of his text. There is a moment that audience members have been referring to as “the teddy bear moment,” which cements Jeff Schwager as the star of the show.
Allen Cole has written original music for the play’s four songs, which are jaunty additions beautifully rendered by the ensemble and led by a merry and tuneful Ryan Rogerson.
As You Like It is a wonderfully fun theatrical adventure on the Ross Creek mountain, and it is also beautifully insightful into the aspects of love, the desire for liberty and equality, and the need for kindness in the world. Indeed, this play is just as I like it.
As You Like It plays at the Theatre Off the Grid at Ross Creek Centre for the Performing Arts (555 Ross Creek Road, Canning, Nova Scotia) Tuesdays to Sundays at 6:00pm. For As You Like It, regular tickets are available at $25. Discounted senior tickets are available ($23), as are discounts for students, actor’s equity members and military families ($20). Children’s tickets are $10, and family packages ($65), for a family of four, are also available. Picnics before the show are available and are $20, and subject to availability, so pre-ordering picnics are a must. Drinks and snacks are also available. For more information about Two Planks and a Passion or to your order your tickets please visit this website or call the Box Office at 902.582.3073.