If you happen upon a full-on, in-the-ring wrestling meet or the riotous strains “All You Need Is Love” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater this month, be not confused. The Navy Pier venue has not forsaken its Elizabethan namesake for extreme sports and cover bands. It’s merely that director Daryl Cloran’s 1960s-set staging of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” features extensive live wrestling and more than two dozen tunes from the Beatles catalogue.
The artistic director of Edmonton Canada’s Citadel Theatre slashed half of Shakespeare’s text to make room for the music in the Chicago production opening October 6. The first act’s wrestling match was not among the casualties.
“We wanted to throw audiences right into the world of the play, as soon as they arrive. There’s a big wrestling match in the play. So why not a preshow tournament?,” Cloran said of the 15-minute fisticuffs that foreshadow the play’s bout between the scrappy outcast hero Orlando (Liam Quealy) and the gargantuan, pragmatically named Charles the Wrestler (Austin Eckert).
Daryl Cloran is directing his unique musical take on “As You Like It” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.Mark Capapas/Sun-Times
Cloran is unbothered by purists who would blanch at losing 50% of Shakespeare’s words in the translation from page to stage.
“Every once in a while, I have someone say ‘oh I missed that monologue’ or that one line. But I feel that the songs do the work of moving the story forward, and do the work really well. I don’t think that would be the case with every Shakespeare play. But it is with this one,” he said.
“As You Like It” is a rom-com of the first order: It follows the adventures of best friends and first cousins Celia (Melanie Brezill) and Rosalind (Lakeisha Renee). At lights up, we learn Celia’s royal father Duke Frederick (Kevin Gudahl) has usurped his older brother/Rosalind’s father Duke Senior (also Kevin Gudahl). Like her banished father, Rosalind dons a disguise and heads for the sanctuary of the woods, accompanied by Celia. As they gambol through nature amongst various foods, shepherds and trees that sprout love letters, the women find adventure, love, wisdom and redemption. As this is a comedy, most everyone is neatly married off in the end.
The Beatles and the Bard are a solid pairing, Brezill said. “You think about Shakespeare and the Beatles; they both wrote some of the most iconic verses about love and hope, lines we’re still quoting today.”
Still, finding the right song for the right scene was a challenge. ” ‘As You Like It’ is the most lyrical of Shakespeare’s plays — it already has songs inside of it,” Cloran said. “What we wanted to be sure of was that the music we added wasn’t just a pause for some of our favorite Beatles songs and then the show carries on. The music has to serve the story and the characters.
“There were a few songs that were so obvious to me it felt like they were written for the play, so I started from there,” Cloran said.
Among the “obvious” numbers: “Fool on the Hill,” which accompanies the court jester Touchstone (Kayvon Khoshkam) as he makes his entrance.
” ‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away’ is another one,” Cloran said. “The song is such a bittersweet commentary on the predicament Rosalind finds herself in, falling in love and then immediately having to hide it.”
The plot itself follows an arc that’s not completely divorced from the Beatles’ own progression from mop-topped pop stars to counterculture icons, Cloran pointed out.
” ‘As You Like It’ starts in such a naive, hopeful, ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ kind of place,” Cloran said. “And then it goes into the forest and gets much more philosophical. You think of how the Beatles’ music changed from their earliest stuff to what they put out after spending time in India — it’s the same kind of evolution the play makes.”
Khoshkam has been the show’s Touchstone (“a mix of Austin Powers and Elton John,” according to Cloran) since its Vancouver premiere in 2018, reprising the role in Winnipeg, Edmonton, and now Chicago.
“I think entertainment and theater in general allows you to have a shared experience, where everything else melts away. And in this particular entertainment, everything else melts away into this big old burst of VW vans and Beatles music,” he said.
The themes of loyalty and friendship threaded through “As You Like It” are more powerful than ever, post-lockdown, said Brezill. She’s taking the lessons she learned in lockdown into rehearsal.
“I’ve come to appreciate how important it is to have people who will go into the woods with you,” the South Shore native said. “Community has been the one single most thing that has sustained me through the past year and a half. At some point, we all need that someone who is willing to walk through danger with us. That’s what this play is about in so many ways. Finding the community that supports you when times get really, really tough.”