“Imagine a world where plants have evolved into walking and talking creatures.”
That’s director Anand Rajaram’s invitation to the audience in “As You Like It,” one of the highlights of this summer’s Dream in High Park series. Rajaram’s 90-minute version of Shakespeare’s comedy officially opens August 4 and runs through September 4 at the High Park Amphitheatre.
Rajaram’s aim is to make the production accessible to the widest possible audience and that meant starting “from a place where children will understand it”, as well as “those for whom Shakespeare is a foreigner or English is a second language , or anyone who just understands cinematically, visually, through images,” he said.
The idea that the characters are more than human came from discussions with Anne Barber and Brad Harley of Shadowland Theatre, who are designing sets, costumes and props for the show. “I said at Shadowland that I didn’t want there to be any human beings on stage because I want the audience to be in a place of, ‘What is this? “, Rajaram said. “And Shadowland said, ‘Well, what if everyone was some plant?'”
He thinks audiences will quickly buy into the conceit “because we have Pixar, we have ‘Monsters, Inc.’, we have ‘Cars’, we have ‘Toy Story’. We have all these things that are heightened reality” Rajaram said, “There’s a very strong cartoon aesthetic to the show. The idea is that it’s a live-action cartoon.”
Shakespeare aficionados expecting something close to the published versions of the script might at first be confused. “But people who approach it with an open mind, I think, will see it very differently,” Rajaram said. The show features new music from five contemporary artists, including Serena Ryder, Kiran Ahluwalia, Lacey Hill, Maryem Tollar and an anonymous contributor.
It’s a full circle moment for Rajaram, who has never done a major production before. His first professional acting job was in a High Park production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1996, a gig he “pursued doggedly” because the Shakespeare productions in High Park he saw in high school were the only ones in which he felt there could be room for him on stage. “Because of the openness of space and the openness of casting, (High Park) was the first place I went” early in his career, Rajaram said.
“As You Like It” is a story of reversals and reinventions: Duke Senior and his daughter Rosalind are banished from court by Duke Frederick, Senior’s brother. Before leaving, Rosalind falls in love with Orlando, who pursues her to the Forest of Arden. In the forest, there are multiple overlapping romances, including Rosalind dressing up as a boy and having Orlando woo her as if she were Rosalind (which of course she is). Meanwhile, Duke Senior tries to rebuild his life in a new setting.
Approaching the play, Rajaram began with the title: “What does ‘As you like’ mean? I think it means the world as you would like it to be,” he said.
He turned to Thomas More’s book “Utopia”, published in the mid-16th century, which “proposes another land which has different rules from the present and shows some things which are good and some things which are bad, but just shows alternative ways of living,” Rajaram said.
“So if it’s ‘As You Like It’ and we start in a place where everyone’s unsettled, everyone’s trying to find stability, peace, whatever, then when they get to the forest , so this is their opportunity to figure that out.”
Rajaram found contemporary resonance in the idea of trying to rebuild a society without duplicating existing power structures. “We are in a period of great destabilization, financial and social, and all the paradigms we knew are collapsing and new ones are emerging. We actively seek utopia, but tearing down a statue does not achieve it,” he said. “The building after is the hardest part and that’s where all the characters are.”
To reinforce this idea of breaking down hierarchies, Rajaram came to rehearsals with a golden crown on his head, dressed in a costume: a large velvet peacock puppet with his head in front of him and his tail behind.
“I’ve seen directors who will show up to rehearsal in costume because it’s a mark of authority,” he said. “It’s kind of a playful reversal of the idea. I’m the king in the room, but I’m also riding a peacock. It’s to maintain a sense of play in the room and to maintain the feeling of not taking the things too seriously.
“Everyone reacts differently” to their costume, Rajaram added, but “nobody has a negative answer”.
Working on the show allowed Rajaram to explore the concept of utopia in depth.
“When we go to the forest, everything is dying and decaying, fungus and fungus, and it’s scary. But that’s where the richness of everything really is, where it’s free and abundant,” he said.
“Utopia is ultimately about reconciling mortality. Once you are no longer afraid of death, then you realize utopia. That’s what love is basically when it’s timeless and there’s no fear of death.
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