It’s funny how many famous Canucks are stepping out of the woodwork in the forest of Ardenne.
Rosalind and Orlando of William Shakespeare’s comedy, As You Like It, stumble onto some Canadian icons during their woodland wanderings in this winning Bard on Bower production that opened Thursday night in Red Deer.
The romantic pair meet philosophizing author and conservationist Grey Owl, assorted French Canadian lumberjacks, an earnest aw-shucks Mountie, and a travelling Group of Seven-like painter.
The Prime Stock Theatre play that’s running on the Bower Ponds outdoor stage was transported to the Algonquin wilds of Central Canada sometime in the 1930s — a period that gives director Thomas Usher plenty of golden-age Canuck fodder to throw into the mix.
Usher doesn’t hold back, and all the Canadiana references went over well with the audience.
The comedy also features toe-tapping French Canadian lumberjack songs and the catchy The Log Driver’s Waltz, popularized by the National Film Board of Canada vignette. There’s some step dancing and jigging. And a series of Canadian animals appear in the buckskin-clad arms of Grey Owl (actually Jaques, played by Daniel Vasquez). These include a beaver, skunk and possible owl (speculation is that it could also be a jackalope).
As You Like It, with its loose, meandering plot line about love among the banished set, lends itself to clever switch-ups. And with Wednesday night’s cool gusts necessitating audience members to cocoon into blankets in mid-July, imagining the play in a Canadian setting wasn’t any stretch.
The action begins with Rosalind (Kayla Nickel) meeting Orlando (Tyler Reinhold) at a wrestling competition that he handily wins. She gives him a congratulatory peck on the cheek that seals the deal — the two are passionately, irrevocably in love.
Unfortunately, the would-be lovers must part, due to the evil plotting of Duke Frederick, who rules the court. He banishes Rosalind into the forest, merely because he has previously banished her “traitor” father, and she is considered equally untrustworthy.
Unbeknownst to Rosalind, Orlando must also flee to evade his older brother, who — in the ultimate act of sibling rivalry — has been plotting to kill him.
When the romantic pair run into each other again in the forest, only Rosalind is aware of Orlando’s identity. She is, apparently, unrecognizably disguised as the boy Ganymede, and decides to remain that way in order to test Orlando’s devotion by grilling him about the nature of love.
Meanwhile, Rosalind’s cousin, Celia (Jennifer Engler), also falls in love/lust with someone — Orlando’s reformed brother, Oliver (Derick Neumeier), who has gained a conscience after being saved from a grizzly bear attack by Orlando.
Romance is definitely in the fresh Algonquin air, with stalwart Mountie Silvius (Aaron Casselman) pining for the haughty and misguided Phebe (Nicole Leal) — who actually desires Ganymede. Even court jester Touchstone, played by Silverius Materi as a 1930s preppy in short plants, plaid sweater and straw boater hat, has been pierced by cupid’s arrow. His love object is the plaid-shirted lumberjack camp cook, Audrey (Elise Dextraze).
Will these woodsy couples get together? Since this is a Shakespearian comedy, their odds are pretty good. In fact, anyone bummed out by the ending to Romeo and Juliet, which is being staged in repertoire with As You Like It, should check out this feel-good finale. (Bring lawn chairs, blankets and bug spray.)
At three hours with intermission, As You Like It occasionally needs to pick up the pace, but things do get rolling in the more romantic second half. And Usher does a great job of staging memorable scenes, including several that spill out into the audience. There’s one hilarious exchange that shows Celia and Oliver physically drawn to each other like starving diners to a loaded buffet. Nickel and Reinhold also shine as Rosalind and Orlando, a couple with a more cerebral attraction.
The whole cast has a facility for speaking Shakespearian dialogue, and many players also demonstrated a flair for comedy — particularly Leal, Materi, Engler and Neumeier. As the run progresses, I suspect more actors will play it broader, which should bump up the laughs.
As You Like It contains the famous “All the world’s a stage” speech as well as expressions that have pervaded everyday talk, including the terms “no rhyme or reason,” “flattering tongue” and the idea of thoughts having wings. But the thing that makes this play most relevant is the modern ideas it conveys.
Rosalind and Orlando trade endless verbal parries on the subject of love. Rosalind, still disguised as Ganymede, offers to continue serving as a conversational stand-in for the lover Orlando is pining for.
Finally he tells her, “I can no longer live by thinking.” In modern terms, Orlando is telling her, poetry be damned! Romantic fantasy is no longer cutting it — he needs the real thing.
As You Like It will be performed at 7:30 p.m. tonight, and July 31, Aug. 2, 3, and 4, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is free, but donations are greatly appreciated.