As You Like It
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
June 15, 2012
The Public Theater's new outdoor production of William Shakespeare's classic comedy As You Like It proves what an indestructible summer institution they have built over the years: it is impossible not to have an enjoyable time at Shakespeare in the Park, even if the production in question is somewhat lacking, which is certainly the case here.
The plot, which should be familiar enough to anyone who's ever been near a theatre or a classroom, features many of Shakespeare's signature tropes and devices: cross-gender disguises, mistaken identities, feuding family members, exiled royalty, and The Bard's legendary wordplay. But As You Like It often derives its charm from its colorful dramatis personae, which includes Rosalind, the play's plucky heroine who poses as a boy while exiled in the Forest of Arden; Touchstone, her loyal and smart-alecky fool; the relentlessly melancholy Jaques, court attendant to the exiled Duke; and Audrey, a simple and big-hearted country goatherd. These characters, and many others, give the play a loose, funky appeal that sets it apart from the rest of the canon.
Director Daniel Sullivan plays things loose and funky alright, but not in the way one might expect. His leisurely staging makes the play feel more ruminative than comedic. Considering that As You Like It is a play that lends itself easily to zaniness, there is very little of that here. Instead, Sullivan's workmanlike direction crafts a production so casual it often seems as if there's nothing at stake for anyone. Under these conditions, Shakespeare's magical language often loses its meaning. Everything turns into a throwaway.
Even though it's hard to tell if Sullivan has a point of view on the play, he still manages to do some excellent work with the actors. Lily Rabe is likable and convincing as the lovestruck, cross-dressing Rosalind. She makes our heroine passionate and a bit goofy, but smart. Andre Braugher is solid in his duel roles as Duke Frederick and Duke Senior, using small details to mark the differences between the two and speaking the verse with clarity and ease throughout. Donna Lynne Champlin turns Audrey into a one-woman, tap-dancing hootenanny. And, as Jaques, Stephen Spinella applies Sullivan's throwaway tactic to the legendary "All the world's a stage" speech with great success. Spinella's rendering eliminates cowing reverence in favor of thoughtful, relaxed simplicity.
This As You Like It is most fun, however, when it shows off the original music of composer Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin). His bluegrass-inspired score (set to Shakespeare's lyrics) is lovely and boisterous, and leaves one looking forward to a Martin-penned musical. The excellent onstage band—which features Tashina Claridge (fiddle), Jordan Tice (guitar), Tony Trischka (banjo), and Skip Ward (bass)—swings with air-tight precision, and elevates the production to giddy heights every time they get a turn.
Then there's the whole Shakespeare in the Park factor, which (as I mentioned before) makes it impossible to have a bad time at the Delacorte Theatre. Sitting underneath the open sky in lovely weather (which we were lucky enough to have on the night I attended) and watching some of the best actors in the world ply their craft—for free, no less!—well, there's very little that's better than that. The total experience of seeing professional theatre under such conditions has always been a magical one and it continues to be. When one thinks of this current As You Like It in that way, the reasons why The Public has been able to mount this annual enterprise successfully for the past 50 years become abundantly clear.