Theatre: Getting To Like Shakespeare In The Park

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Lily Rabe and David Furr t (Joan Marcus)
How It’s New York: Shakespeare in the Park has been a NYC tradition since it was founded by Joe Papp in 1954.
How It’s Irish: Irishman Oliver Platt played Touchstone the jester in the production of As You Like It, which closes tonight.

It’s an odd play– but As You Like It becomes a satisfying romantic comedy. And the bluegrass by Steve Martin, performed by Tony Trischka et al, is a delight.

A version of this article first appeared in Irish Examiner USA on June 26.

Banjo by Tony Trischka is always a good thing. It’s not the only reason to see As You Like It, The Public Theater’s first offering for Shakespeare in the Park, but it helps.
The music was composed by Steve Martin – yes, that one.

As You Like It is just an odd play. It’s one of Shakespeare’s comedies that you probably think you’ve seen a bunch of times, and haven’t.
Like Twelfth Night, which does get produced all the time, As You Like It involves a woman dressed as a man and a number of love mishaps that, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, take place in a forest.
But unlike those two popular comedies, it takes a lot of time to get going. All of the first half, in the current production which runs until June 30 (it opened officially on June 21, so a short space between reviews and closing).

In the play, a young woman, Rosalind (Lily Rabe), and her friend Celia (Renee Elise Goldsberry) run into the Forest of Arden to protect themselves from the whims of Celia’s father Duke Frederick (Andre Braugher, who also plays his deposed brother, Duke Senior). Rosalind, because she is “uncommon tall,” disguises herself as a shepherd, Ganymede, and Celia poses as a rural country lass.

But that’s the fun part. In the first part we have to stumble through a long, not very interesting section where we see that Duke Frederick is mean, that Orlando (David Furr) is handsome and deserving but oppressed by his cruel brother Oliver (Omar Metwally).

Rosalind falls for Orlando when she sees him defeat a wrestler, against all odds.
In the forest, Duke Senior hangs out with his merry men and a melancholy guy named Jacques (Stephen Spinella), who gets one of Shakespeare’s most famous passages about the seven ages of man.

Spinella’s droll and stylish ripostes add great interest to this figure, whose sad philosophy can sometimes drag the play down; instead, he livens it wherever he appears.
As Ganymede, Rosalind decides to “help” Orlando get over his heartache by having him call her Rosalind and woo her.

He’s been annoying everyone by posting doggerel to Rosalind on every tree. That the lover should woo his beloved and not know it’s she is a nice device, although it suggests that he, along with her own father, is rather stupid. You have to go with it, in the world of Shakespeare if people were able to recognize a girl in men’s clothing several plays would fall apart.

The play is set in the rural South, circa 1840, so there are pre-Civil War era costumes, bluegrass music, and, at the top, a big wooden fort. But don’t worry – it appears that director Daniel Sullivan has only borrowed the imagery. There is no attempt to re-imagine the story in America, which would be hard to do with the titled characters and whimsical justice.

Though I was bored in the first part, the second half of the play completely won me over. Lily Rabe’s vocal delivery will bother some people – she’s nasal and very contemporary, very urban – but her self-deprecating humor that clearly saw how ridiculous everything was won me over.

As Silvius, who loves heartless Phoebe (Susannah Flood), who in turn falls for Ganymede, Will Rogers pulls every ounce of sweet humor from his lanky frame.

(@Joan Marcus)

When he sniffled, the audience went “aw.” Goldsberry does well with her sidekick roll, and her eye-rolling at some of Rosalind’s antics were as punchy as her lines.

Braugher mostly blusters as both dukes, but something about this actor always touches me.

Irishman Oliver Platt plays Touchstone, the court jester.
He seemed to take a while to get in the groove the night I went, but by the end of the play, when he’s backed himself into marrying a blowsy, hilarious Audrey (Dana Lynne Champlin), the actor’s quick way with a joke and rubbery expressions completely delighted.

The play predates Twelfth Night by a year or two, and some of the best things in it prefigure that play – such as a woman falling in love with a man who’s really a woman, or people talking to one another and not knowing they are confessing their secrets to the person who most wants to hear them.

It’s a nice choice for a Shakespeare in the Park, set as it is in a forest, with the natural world and its charms always held as a curative. 

While not a thrilling production, it is a very solid one, and a fine entertainment for a summer night.

And then there’s that bluegrass band. Sometimes they stand in the trees, sometimes they follow players around, always they add a humorous twang that just makes you happy.

As You Like It runs at the Delacorte Theater through June 30. Visit shakespeareinthepark.org for information on getting tickets, which are free, but often require long waits in line.

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