‘As You Like It,’ with the songs of the Beatles, is a groovy good time

‘As You Like It,’ with the songs of the Beatles, is a groovy good time

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Any doubts about the merits of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 1960s-set riff on “As You Like It,” as fueled by Beatles chart-toppers and flower power, are resoundingly resolved in a wrestling ring moments into director Daryl Cloran’s uproarious interpretation.

As our romantic hero, Orlando (Jeff Irving), goes to the mat against a daunting heavyweight (Marco Walker-Ng), he locks eyes with ringside spectator Rosalind (Chelsea Rose) — prompting the world to slow down and motormouthed commentator Touchstone (Kayvon Khoshkam) to start crooning the Beatles’ 1963 chart-topper “She Loves You.” The carefully calibrated cacophony of chaos that ensues is one of the most astonishing musical numbers on a D.C. stage this year, as time stops and starts, Orlando and Rosalind trade infatuated smirks, and the bout concludes with a body-slamming flourish.

That song is one of two dozen numbers cleverly plucked from the Fab Four’s discography in this enchanting blend of jukebox musical, Elizabethan prose and anachronistic antics, conceived by Christopher Gaze and Cloran for the 2018 Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival in Vancouver, B.C. The production has also been staged in Chicago and Milwaukee, and many members of the largely Canadian cast have returned to nourish D.C. audiences with a heaping helping of song and slapstick.

A word to the wise: Arrive early to Harman Hall, where the pro wrestling sendup gets rolling a few minutes before curtain with a gloriously campy slate of undercard bouts (in a pre-show penned by Khoshkam and choreographed by Jonathan Hawley Purvis). From there, Cloran’s smartly abridged take on Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy treks to more familiar territory: Rosalind, banished from her home amid a familial power struggle, disguises herself as a man and flees for the forest of Arden. There, she again crosses paths with Orlando — himself on the lam from his resentful brother (Matthew MacDonald-Bain) — in a cascade of sexual tension and comic misunderstandings.

That puppy-love innocence is underscored here by the Beatles’ joyful songbook, as well as the peace-and-love ethos of an Arden reimagined as a hippie commune. Rather than distract from Shakespeare’s language, the ubiquitous tunes — “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Here Comes the Sun” and “Across the Universe,” among them — prove to be something of a Rosetta Stone, evoking meaning and emotion that prove to be uncannily aligned with the text.

Turning Orlando’s love letters to Rosalind into the lyrics to “Eight Days a Week” is one such inspired choice. The same goes for “Something,” performed with vaudevillian virtuosity by another of the play’s four couples, the snobby Phoebe (Alexandra Lainfiesta) and lovesick Silvius (Ben Elliott, who doubles as music director). Not every performer has a classically trained voice, but the cast makes up for any vocal shortcomings with full-throated comedic commitment.

As Touchstone, a clownish companion to Rosalind and her loyal friend Celia (the charming Naomi Ngebulana), Khoshkam racks up laugh after laugh. Sporting a gaudy striped suit, sparkling platform heels and an array of Elton John-esque statement glasses, this Touchstone breaks the fourth wall with abandon and keeps going back to the comic well (literally — one recurring gag involves drinking from a dank pool of water). When Touchstone finds his match in the equally eccentric Audrey (Emma Slipp), the handsy duo follow a rendition of “When I’m Sixty-Four” with an animalistic mating ritual that tickles the audience through sheer dedication to the bit.

Portraying Rosalind as a flirtatious firecracker, Rose delights with a barrage of off-kilter readings and reactions. As the sweet but occasionally marble-mouthed Orlando, Irving plays a lovesick doofus to a T. And Andrew Cownden drips with cynicism as the Arden denizen Jaques, who leads hypnotic renditions of “I Am the Walrus” and “The Fool on the Hill,” in addition to slyly delivering the famed Seven Ages of Man speech.

End of carousel

These shenanigans unfold against Pam Johnson’s two-tiered set, which frames its expressionistic backdrops with three sets of psychedelically lit panels. (Gerald King oversees the vibrant lighting.) Costume designer Carmen Alatorre may have the most gleeful assignment of all, crafting looks that run the gamut from skimpy wrestling get-ups to flowing hippie attire. All the while, a collection of actor-musicians has a groovy good time rocking out onstage.

The rock music in this production will, no doubt, make a buzzkill out of the Shakespeare purist. Same goes for the broadly comedic take. But here’s the ironic reality: This twist toward counterculture makes “As You Like It” as accessible as ever.

As You Like It, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Daryl Cloran. Set, Pam Johnson; costumes, Carmen Alatorre; lighting, Gerald King; choreography and fight direction, Jonathan Hawley Purvis; sound, Alistair Wallace; music direction, Ben Elliott. With Henry Beasley, Jennifer Copping, Matthew Ip Shaw, Jennifer Lines, Norman Moses, Evan Rein, Isaiah Terrell-Dobbs and Sally Zori. About 2½ hours. Through Jan. 7 at Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. shakespearetheatre.org.

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