It’s going to be real love,” says Lara Gilchrist during her lunch break. Cross-legged and bright-eyed, the actress hides out in the Vancouver Playhouse props room, surrounded by shelves of artifice and the buzz of dressmakers fashioning Shakespearean garb.
The Jessie-nominated star of this season’s As You Like It may want “real love” to be the play’s farewell message, but she’s also willing to wear a few masks to get there.
Her character, Rosalind, dresses as a boy to survive the dangers of the forest Arden, but soon discovers drag has more uses than one. “All of a sudden this voice comes to her,” says Gilchrist, “that she’s never heard before. She feels ‘I have this power but it doesn’t seem to work when I’m wearing a dress.'”
Rosalind is more of a drag king than a tranny-her time as a boy is a short-lived experiment in gender fucking. And it’s an experiment that Bard on the Beach is willing to embrace, in all its sexy glory.
The opening night for this year’s Shakespeare festival featured horny dance sequences, dungeon-style black leather costumes, shirtless wrestling (who knew waxing was de rigueur in the 16th century?), glam boots, and bulging codpieces that would make a porn star blush. The aesthetic of this As You Like It comes off as a misfit combination of The Matrix and an episode of Kink.
There are gay kisses a-plenty, which, coupled with the SM stylings, make for a pleasingly queer product-a sort of coming out party for Rosalind. Director Robert McQueen wants a heroine who “discovers in herself a whole being that she was not acquainted with. Part of that is a sexual awakening.”
Rosalind uses her adopted male privilege to teach the gushingly romantic Orlando about the true nature of love. Orlando, who fails to recognize the object of his affection when she cuts her hair and pulls on a pair of slacks, has much to learn.
“We haven’t shied away from [the sexual confusion],” promises McQueen. “There’s a kiss in the forest between them.” And that kiss-between men as far as Orlando is concerned-is a directorial decision, not something the play requires.
Bard’s other gay director, Dean Paul Gibson (Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead), believes that Shakespeare’s queer content should derive from a “subjective response. Some gay people will say that’s a cop-out. But I resent that. There are some things that serve the play on so much more than a gay issue.”
Gibson wants the audience to do some digging, taking from these plays a tailored message-one they help to conceive. “Why put a notion in someone’s head?”
McQueen agrees on that score, arguing that Shakespeare enjoys such longevity because of the open-ended nature of his plays. “He wrote to entertain. And I think the way to engage an audience is for an audience to be able to participate in a piece; to recognize part of themselves and step inside the play.”
Certainly queer audience members will find a bit of themselves present in the Bard’s playful, almost raunchy production.
The spectacular Vanier Park venue, where audiences huddle beneath an open-backed tent that showcases real woods, ocean and sky in lieu of a painted scrim, makes it easy to fall for Shakespeare’s fantasy.
Gibson says, “In Arden, [the lovers] feel that they’re liberated from life in the court.” The outdoor tents, then, with their chilled breeze and the romantic emergence of the night sky, “feed into the notion of Arden-this liberation.”
In Arden, as in the world of theatre, that which is censored in polite society becomes available; the taboo becomes a joyful possibility. The categories of right and wrong dissolve under the pressure of art.
“Sometimes we defy categorization,” insists Gibson (who plays a director at work and a bear at the bars). “Sometimes I resent it so much, that this is the way I’m supposed to be today.” But this production of As You Like It takes a laissez-faire cue from its title and beseeches the audience to take what they will, love who they want, be who they are.
For an epilogue, Rosalind arrives in feminine dress and-eyes flashing-smirks, “If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleas’d me…”
In the 16th century a boy would have played Rosalind, making this epilogue a sort of confession, a dropping of the fourth wall. Now that women play their own Shakespearean roles, a defiant Lara Gilchrist uttered the clause “If I were a woman” with charming defiance, as though she might choose not to be. As though the play might continue long after we’d all gone home.
We are meant, ideally, to catch the libertine buzz. “Leave with a sense of wonderment,” hopes McQueen.
Our Rosalind leans forward in her props room and says it best: “We want everyone to leave a little more in love, with whoever they’re in love with.”