Theater Review: AS YOU LIKE IT (Chicago Shakespeare Theater)

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by Dan Zeff on October 16, 2021

in Theater-Chicago


In As You Like It, the new production at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the company unites William Shakespeare’s classic romantic comedy, with the Beatles songbook. And the setting has been shifting from Elizabethan England to hippy America in the 1960’s. Does it sound like a reach for still another way to filter the Bard into a director-inspired concept? Whatever happened to staging Shakespeare’s plays as the great man wrote them, minus modern bright ideas?

Orlando (Liam Quealy) serenades his disguised love Rosalind (Lakeisha Renee)

Daryl Cloran — credited as the adaptor and director — has put together a high-risk vision of one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, and after a slow start, the audience can relax in the awareness that the director has come up with a revival that should please both Beatles idolaters and Shakespeare zealots.

The Company

As You Like It is a collection of improbable love stories set primarily in the warm and fuzzy Forest of Arden in make-believe England. The story is awash in mistaken identities and cross-gender characterizations. The play ends with four weddings, one of them involving a couple who had only met a few minutes before the end of the play. The laws of probability did not weigh heavily on the playwright, but the man was at the height of his powers as a purveyor of witty dialogue, charming lovers, and sleight of hand plotting, creating a funny, sometimes wistful and rueful, even profound play.

Cousins and best friends Rosalind (Lakeisha Renee) and Celia (Melanie Brezill) stick together

At first, the staging does not inspire confidence. The audience enters the theater to see a modern wrestling ring, the site of several minutes of tiresome foolery. But the adaptation rights itself as we are introduced to the first key lovers. Orlando, a young man unfairly banished by Duke Frederick, is forced to flee to the Forest of Arden to escape the duke’s death sentence. At a wrestling match, Orlando meets Rosalind, and the twosome immediately fall in love. Rosalind falls afoul of the duke and she flees with the court jester Touchstone and the Duke’s daughter Celia to the safety of the forest. There they encounter a welcoming company of a band of merry outlaws. From that point to the conclusion the show is home free.

The clown Touchstone (Kayvon Khoshkam) falls hard for shepherdess Audrey (Lachrisa Grandberry)

Injected into the story are more than 20 Beatles songs, resembling the Mamma Mia! jukebox musical format. Orlando and Rosalind sing “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” a forest lord sings “Let It Be,” and so on. The songs fit the dramatic moments deftly and a neophyte viewer might accept that Shakespeare and the Fab Four were highly successful collaborators.

Phoebe (Heidi Kettenring) sets her sights on another to the dismay
of the love-sick Silvius (Michael Daniel Dashefsky)

The cast possesses major league skills as singers, dancers, and handlers of Shakespeare’s language. The CST ensemble is a mix of local actors and imports, many from Canada. The key role of the melancholy and caustic Jaques, written for a man, is performed by Canadian star Deborah Hay, who is so dominant that she takes over the stage on her every appearance, especially in the first act. Longtime local star Heidi Kettinring explodes in the second act as the country lass Phoebe, who falls in love with Rosalind, thinking she is a man, one of the many delicious narrative complexities of the evening. Kettinring is primarily noted as one of Chicagoland theater’s leading dramatic actress but on the CST stage she shows a knockout belting singing voice. Liam Quealy has been a busy actor in local musical theater, but likely never better handling the singing, acting, and dancing demands of Orlando. Other familiar local performers include Kevin Gudahl, Nancy Voigts, and Steve Pringle.

Jaques (Deborah Hay) contemplates the nature of life

Kayvon Khoshkam, who has seemingly performed everywhere in North America, is a revelation as Touchstone. He has converted a basically broad clown into a multi dimensional comedian, singer, and hoofer. Lakeisha Renee and Melanie Brezill are splendid as Rosalind and Celia respectively, Renee earning justified cheers from the opening night audience for her soaring voice.

Orlando (Liam Quealy) and Rosalind (Lakeisha Renee) lock eyes from across the ring,
observed by Touchstone (Kayvon Khoshkam), LeBeau (Deborah Hay), and Charles (Austin Eckert)

The music accompaniment is provided by a group of rock singer-musicians who are on stage in various combinations virtually the entire performance, always sounding good in the first generation rock style. Carmen Alatorre dresses the characters in a flower child wardrobe that takes us credibly back to the 1960s. There are also major league design contributions by Pam Johnson (scenery), Gerald King (lighting), and Owen Hutchinson and Peter McBoyle (sound).

Rosalind (Lakeisha Renee) finds that love is all she needs

The highest compliment we can deliver to this version of As You Like It is that it works. Excluding the first few minutes, there is no self indulgent comic shtick. The play necessarily is trimmed to accommodate the musical infusions; first timer viewers initially may have trouble at times following the story, but the adaptation preserves all the famous material in the original, like Jaques’s “seven ages of man” speech and popular quotations (“rhyme or reason”). The audience laughed at Shakespeare’s humor and adored the Beatles music, for all its familiarity. All in all, a good time was had by people on both sides of the footlights.

The Forest Lords of Arden (left to right Austin Eckert, Jeff Kurysz, Adam Wesley Brown,
Michael Daniel Dashefsky, Kurt Schweitz) jam to a hit song of The Beatles

photos by Liz Lauren

As You Like It
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
The Jentes Family Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave.
Wed at 1; Thurs & Fri at 7:30; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2
ends on November 21, 2021
for tickets ($49 to $90), call 312.595.5600 or visit Chicago Shakes
patrons must provide proof of vaccination and wear a mask while in the theater

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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