Fifty summers ago Joseph Papp directed George C. Scott and James Earl Jones in The Merchant of Venice in the new Delacorte Theater in Central Park as part of a Public Theater project to bring free Shakespeare to the masses. To celebrate the anniversary, Daniel Sullivan has staged a winning production of As You Like It, set in a banjo-strumming, antebellum South, and with a knockout performance by Lily Rabe as Rosalind.
Nobody writes lovesick lads and lasses, with all their absurdities, better than Shakespeare. And the Forest of Arden, the pixyish exile of the banished Duke and his entourage, is full of them.
Shakespeare took the plot for As You Like It from a popular novel by Thomas Lodge titled "Rosalynde," and turned a serious tale about a ruthless ruler who usurped his brother's dukedom into a humorous satire that parodies the bucolic life and the amorous pursuits of a maze of lovers.
Sullivan has transposed the play to red-clay, piney-wood country sometime in the mid-19th century. A bluegrass combo wanders in and out of scenes, providing foot-stomping, hoedown music composed by Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) and Greg Pliska for Shakespeare's songs. The palace in John Lee Beatty's set is a log fort complete with watchtower that rolls away to reveal Central Park's natural setting for Arden Forest. A fight director provides a rather bloody wrestling match, and there is even a dead deer on the prop list.
As You Like It only really comes alive once the action moves into the woods and all the outcast members of the tyrant Duke's court find mates among the rustics, and vice versa, and begin wooing one another, as Rosalind puts it, "like the howling of Irish wolves against the moon."
Rosalind, who dons doublet and hose and assumes the alias of Ganymede for her sojourn in exile, is at the center of these lustful romps. She and Orlando, fleeing his brother Oliver, who put out a contract on him, fell in love at first sight back at the palace wrestling match, and have carried their torches for each other into their separate exiles.
Orlando, however, does not recognize Ganymede as Rosalind in male drag and she convinces him to court her as though he were the girl he left behind. But Rosalind has other problems. Dressed as a man, she is also pursued by Phebe, a local shepherdess, who in turn is beloved by Silvius. Then there is Touchstone, once the court jester, who fixes on Audrey, a goatherdess who also happens to be the object of another local swain's affection. And when a repentant Oliver arrives in the forest he is promptly smitten by Celia, Rosalind's cousin and dearest friend. All of this is observed with sardonic commentary by Jaques, one of Shakespeare's most philosophic creations.
If it sounds confusing, Sullivan's able cast helps sort it out. Rabe is a joy to watch throughout, and her scenes in which she instructs Orlando how to woo her are hilarious. There are other strong performances, especially from Renee Elise Goldsberry as the lovely Celia and Oliver Platt as the wry and world-wise Touchstone, Shakespeare's wisest fool. Stephen Spinella delivers a pensive reading of Jaques, notably in the "Seven Ages of Man" soliloquy, though his melancholy leans toward morose, and David Furr gives a thoughtful interpretation of Orlando but is a bit short on charm or the passion he claims for Rosalind. Among other fine turns are Donna Lynne Champlin's Audrey, Susannah Flood's Phebe, and Will Rogers' Silvius.
By the Public Theater's counting, more than five million people have attended these free performances over the past half century. And with a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino, the current As You Like It is a good start to the next 50 years of Shakespeare in the Park.
Watch highlights from "As You Like It," courtesy Broadway World: