Over the centuries, Shakespeare has been adapted in countless ways. It’s the appeal of his work, after all: universal in its appeal, timeless in its messages, and just as entertaining today as it was 400 years ago. In all the ways his work has been adapted, however, I’m fairly certain you’ve never seen anything quite like Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s latest take: the Bard meets the Beatles. On now through November 21 and conceived, adapted and directed by Daryl Cloran, this version of As You Like It, one of Shakespeare’s most winning love stories, is reimagined to interject classic Beatles songs that, I must admit, fit surprisingly well as Rosalind, Orlando, Celia, Oliver and their entourages fall in and out of love, pretend to be other people and abscond to the forest when banished by the Duke.
First things first, it felt extraordinarily good to be back in the friendly confines of CST’s Courtyard Theater, the ever-evolving performance space where, pre-pandemic, I’d seen Peter Pan fly, Queen Elizabeth reign and much, much more. This time around, the show started a bit before the 7pm curtain time as the space’s signature thrust stage, entirely consumed by an imposing boxing ring, became the scene of a swinging ’60s fight night. Kayvon Khoshkam’s Touchstone hits the ground running as the fight’s charismatic emcee, the whole company having a riot acting out a few pre-show “fights,” house lights up and stragglers finding their seats. There’s a snippet of 1963’s “Money” in there, referencing the fight’s prize money, but so far, it’s hard to know where this whole Beatles thing is going (and just how well it’s going to work).
Soon, the lights dim and we’re into the narrative, cousins Rosalind (Lakeisha Renee) and Celia (Melanie Brezill) giggling through the court of Duke Frederick, Celia’s father and the man who ousted his brother, Rosalind’s father, from his throne. There’s a challenger eager to prove himself in the ring, one Orlando (Liam Quealey), who’s brother to Oliver, the Duke’s faithful right-hand man. It’s love at first sight as soon as Rosalind and Orlando set eyes on each other, and within the show’s first few scenes, we’ve managed to wind our way through “We Can Work It Out,” “She Loves You,” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” all classic Beatles hits and all timely and appropriate for the moment in the show. The oddest thing about it all at this point isn’t the musical interludes but that massive boxing ring that’s still swallowing up the spotlight on stage, the actors forced to think of creative ways to perform around it (and, weirdly, in it at certain (non-wrestling) points).
All this is just prelude to the real work of As You Like It, which gets going when the Duke, who won’t have any possible threat in his court, banishes his niece from his presence. Celia would rather die than be without her BFF, so she heads off to the forest with her cousin, the two of them in disguise to stay safe, Rosalind as a man and Celia as a commoner. Orlando, too, heads out to the forest for safety after he defeats the Duke’s champion, Charles. And in this moment, something magical happens in this creative, surprising production: as the cast delivers a winning version of “Help!,” the big, awkward boxing ring and its Vegas-like accoutrements (neon signs, etc.) practically disappearing before our eyes and the stage is transformed into a flower child’s paradise, a dreamy forest landscape complete with a small pond, a spot for the live band upstage and a VW bus to complete the ’60s scene. Pam Johnson’s scenic design for the win, and now we’re on to something….
In a credit to Cloran’s thoughtful process, the show, a healthy two hours and forty minutes with one intermission, never feels disjointed or interrupted by the nearly two dozen Beatles songs slipped in between couplets. That’s right, the rest of the show, around the fringe, bellbottoms and platform shoes (costumes by Carmen Alatorre), is performed in original Shakespearean dialogue! And I’m telling you, it works. That’s a great deal thanks to a hard-working cast, not a dud among them. Many of the actors take on double duty over the course of the show, and their versatility is truly impressive. What’s more, every single performer is a triple threat, minimum, some even that rare quadruple threat (what? it’s a thing!). The entire cast is asked to be able to act, dance and sing, and here, they all succeed. Several, like Austin Eckert (Charles, the wrestler; Amiens) and Kurt Schweitz (a Forest Lord/Assassin) and others are doing all that and playing multiple instruments in the on-stage band. It’s beyond impressive.
If there is any hiccup in the proceedings, it’s only in that an actor like Renee, who clearly has a set of pipes, is relegated to the mid-range, unexciting melodies of George, Paul, John and Ringo. These songs were not made for someone of her talent to sing, at least not in a key that makes it possible for both she and Quealey to hit all the notes. Some of the show’s most promising musical moments ultimately fall flat because the actor can’t quite get the power they need behind the note, or because, well, these songs weren’t written to be showstoppers. Nevertheless, Cloran’s ambitious attempt here is mostly to be commended. It takes true ingenuity (not to mention confidence) to look at some of the most classic literature of the Western world and some of the most popular contemporary music ever written and think, “why yes, I think I can do something with this…” And he does.
As You Like It is playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theater (located on Navy Pier) through November 21. Tickets are $49-$90 and available online. The theater requires proof of COVID vaccination or a negative COVID test for entry, and all attendees are required to wear a mask when not actively eating or drinking.
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