Take a look at the program for Hart House Theatre’s production of As You Like It, and it’s almost like déjà vu. A Shakespearean play with a September run, directed by theatre veteran David Gardner and featuring Pip Dwyer, Jeremy Hutton and Joel Grothe in leading roles-blink, and you’d think it was September 2002’s production of Macbeth. Of course, there are some key differences; this year’s selection is a comedy and there are several new faces on stage. However, the two productions are similar in the best way possible. While Macbeth marked Gardner’s triumphant return to Hart House Theatre, As You Like It is equally strong, and is a testament both to the value of a good director and to the talent of the young actors who have become a fixture on the Hart House stage.
A lighthearted pastoral comedy, As You Like It is a fairytale-like twist on the typical Shakespearean themes of disorder, mistaken identity, love, and family relationships. When Duke Senior (Byron Rouse) is banished from the kingdom by his jealous brother, Duke Frederick (also played by Rouse in a clever bit of casting), he escapes to the Forest of Arden, an Eden-esque woodland that proves the perfect location to play Robin Hood with his own band of Merry Men. He is soon followed by his daughter Rosalind (Dwyer), in disguise as a young man named Ganymede in order to avoid recognition after she and her cousin Celia (Lada Darewych) flee the harsh dictates of her uncle’s court. Also on the run is Rosalind’s lover Orlando (Hutton), who has escaped to the forest in fear of his elder brother’s hatred. Orlando does not know his Rosalind is in the forest; Rosalind, appearing before him as a young man, decides to take advantage of the unique opportunity to test her lover before revealing her true identity.
Under Gardner’s superb direction, the cast navigate the fast-paced text with ease, seamlessly twisting each new plot twist into the already-established action. Dwyer and Hutton are particularly notable-as the play’s central couple, they display evident chemistry and have a warmth to their performances that draws the audience in. Both actors have fine stage presence and handle a large range of emotions with clarity and confidence. As Dwyer’s constant scene partner, Darewych’s performance fades in direct comparison, but grew stronger in the play’s later acts as her flighty Celia became the perfect balance to Dwyer’s quick-witted Rosalind. In the dual role of Duke Frederick and Duke Senior, Rouse turns in a solid performance, often switching between the cruel selfishness of the former character and the genuine affection of the other in seconds, with only a quick costume change in between.
Other performers of note include Albert Masters, who made the role of Orlando’s loyal servant, Adam, both touching and comic; Joel Grothe, whose melancholy Jacques caused the audience to laugh out loud on several occasions, and Jason Gray, who as Touchstone proved that the fool always gets the last laugh.
Special note must also be made of Sherri Catt’s wonderful costume and set designs. Both set and costumes allowed for quick changes-from the kingdom court to the Forest of Arden as the story switched settings, from courtiers to foresters as actors switched both costumes and roles-within seconds. Costumes were detailed and captured the spirit of the play with rustic, woodsy colours in the forest and jewel tones at court. As You Like It features the most songs of any Shakespeare play, and music is appropriately a large part of this production, with an original score composed by Trevor Rines and played by an instrumental quintet. Actor Phil Carmichael, who played Amiens, one of Duke Senior’s exiled followers, is to be commended for not only acting, but also playing guitar and lending an excellent voice to several songs throughout the play.
In the end, however, final praise goes to Gardner, whose direction is at the centre of this production’s success (as it was with last year’s Macbeth). His years of experience in the theatre are evident in the way he manages actors both young and old, creating a vision that allows them to bring Shakespeare to life on stage. As You Like It is not just an excellent student production; it is a good production, period, and it leaves those of us who have been following Hart House Drama for the past several years hoping Gardner returns to recreate the same magic next fall, and for many years to come.