Saturday, June 23, 2012

As We Like It

The Public Theatre’s 50th season of Shakespeare in the Park has started off with a twang and a thrum and a heart-warming humdinger of a production of As You Like It.  Director Daniel Sullivan has taken the Forest of Arden and planted it in the American frontier leaning south.  A Lincoln Logs fort hides the Duke’s court up center, with a watchtower way up high.  A fellow in a vaguely Confederate uniform watches the audience amble in.  Another soldier joins him on a lower level.  Then four fabulous musicians, led by Tony Trischka, stroll on and joyously entertain us with bluegrass music written by Steve Martin (yes, walk-like-an-Egyptian Steve Martin).  Banjo, guitar, bass, and a fiddle, they picked and stroked and sang up a storm on a perfect evening in Central Park. 
Photo Credits Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

A sign hangs from a tree advertising a challenge to Charles the Wrestler, and the scene is set.  One by one we meet Orlando and Adam, Celia and Rosalind, Shakespeare’s usurper Duke Frederick, his entourage -- I can just type out the list of characters in As You Like It and say they were all well cast, loving their work and sharing it with us.  Sometimes when I see a Shakespeare play I have read multiple times and seen performed as many, something amazing happens, and I hear lines suddenly clarified, suddenly new, the suddenness magical.  This was one of those evenings in the theatre.

AYLI includes so many elements:  two instances of internecine quarreling — severe to the point of banishment and attempted murder — cross dressing, disguises, romance (primary, secondary, tertiary, quaternary), and a great deal of bawdy.  All these elements need to be blended together by a skilled director and, happily, Daniel Sullivan is a highly skilled, crafty, witty, and swell director. He tells the story of the play coherently, cohesively, and finds all the fun while retaining the verse and its rhythms.  Set designer John Lee Beatty integrated his clever set with Central Park’s trees so that it was tough to tell the landscape from the stage, while Jane Greenwood’s comfy period costumes made everyone easily shrug on their clothing to meet the day.

The opening scene of Shakespeare's AYLI is a weak one, providing exposition of Orlando’s family history and present estate.  Granted, in Shakespeare’s day people went to hear a play, not see it.  Nevertheless, it’s definitely telling instead of showing.  Showing comes soon enough, though, upon the entrance of Orlando’s elder brother Oliver.  The two men wrestle to the ground, Oliver emerging red-faced and furious, setting up a brother banished, and the possibility that Orlando’s decision to challenge Charles the Wrestler is not necessarily suicidal.  Knowing how to use one’s weight can be as important as having it.  This Orlando knows.

Most productions of AYLI begin to fail right there in the opening, with Orlando sounding petulant, hardly the stuff of a leading man.  Luckily the same words, under the more than capable guidance of Mr. Sullivan, sound different coming from David Furr’s Orlando, which is, bar none, the best Orlando I’ve ever seen.  Macintyre Dixon as Adam, the old manservant Oliver banishes along with his brother, is a good match for Furr, his new master.  And Omar Metwally does fine work as the elder brother with all the advantages, yet still feverish with jealousy of his younger brother’s natural graces.

Meanwhile, in the fort, Duke Frederick, the usurper of his brother Duke Senior, is an unstable fellow.  One moment he’s “hale fellow well met,” and the next he lashes out fiercely for no cause.  His exiled brother Duke Senior is of a much more even disposition, which the foolish might mistake for weakness.  The brother dukes are played by Andre Braugher, whose booming voice suits Shakespeare’s royalty and readily differentiates the dukes. He is kind and warm as Senior and changeable as Frederick.

Celia, daughter of the unstable Duke Frederick, is played with hearty relish by Renee Elise Goldsberry.  She is petite and pretty and powerful.  The connection between her and her cousin Rosalind, daughter of the exiled Duke Senior, is nearly palpable.  I’ve seen some good Celia’s, but never as clear a relationship as between these two women.  These cousins are like sisters, joking, arguing, teasing, loving, and defending one another against all comers – even if he’s a Duke.

The fights were all well staged by Rick Sordelet, performed well by Furr and Metwally and Brendan Averett, who played Charles the Wrestler. The important part of the wrestling scene, of course, is the magical moment when two sets of eyes meet, and Rosalind and Orlando are smitten, quite prepared to fall at one another’s feet.  Of course, neither can say so, and off we go.

Public Theatre Artistic Director Oskar Eustis’ Notes to the production state it clearly:  “You …do As You Like It when you’ve got a Rosalind.”  Has he got a Rosalind!  Lily Rabe is wondrous.  Articulate, witty, sharp, silly, she runs the gamut as Rosalind/Ganymede.  She was pitch perfect, gifting us with her beautiful use of verse, voice, heart and body.  Mischievously butch as she counterfeits a counterfeit of herself, witty beyond laughter in court or country.  Her Ganymede’s “You are not for all markets” admonition to Phoebe was fresh and new.

I can say with certainty that these were the best Rosalind-and-Celia and the best Rosalind-and-Orlando scenes I have ever seen.  Orlando’s not an easy role, so often appearing a doofus, but David Furr made him young and abused, young and brash, until he grew flowering into a courtier worthy of the daughter of a duke.  This was the first time I've really heard the scene between Orlando and Jaques, perhaps because it was the first time I believed Orlando was capable of the conversation. 

Stephen Spinella’s thrilling, ever looming, listening Jaques was drily funny and thoughtful and sad. The seven ages of man speech trotted along as Spinella simply told the story, without rushing, as if it had never been told before.  His opening lines just stop the show with laughter at his extraordinary tone.  He closes the first act with stillness.  I stood to stretch as others went off to the concession stand, and just watched him live those unscripted moments.  A wonderful performance.
Stephen Spinella as Jaques.  (Photo by Jennifer Broski)
Oliver Platt, not surprisingly, knows how to play the bawdy as Touchstone.  He is hilarious slapstick, rhythmic, scandalous. The pairing of Platt with Donna Lynne Champlin as Audrey, an earthy dancing fool, did not appear to be a courtly fellow taking advantage of a simple country wench.  Perhaps the opposite.  Lusty is as lusty does with those two.  I felt for poor Audrey’s wooer William (a single scene by a singular player, Brendan Titley, was just marvelous), but this Audrey and Touchstone belong together.

The foolish Silvius, in love with the shepherdess Phoebe (played by Susanna Flood, who was not quite in same part of the forest), was well done by Will Rogers with traditional oafishness that turns to wit when he learns a thing or two. 

Robert Joy’s Le Beau is charmingly foolish, torn yet loyal.  Among the banished duke’s followers is Amiens, played by the golden-voiced Jesse Lenat who leads the exiles in song.  All the crackerjack musicians (including Tashina Clarridge, Jordan Tice, Skip Ward, Anna Phyllis Smith, and Tony Trischka) in this production were splendid, as was the nifty choreography by Mimi Lieber.

In short, the Public Theatre's As You Like It is the best all around production of the play I've ever seen. Daniel Sullivan directed beautifully, Lily Rabe’s Rosalind and David Furr’s Orlando were stunningly played, Stephen Spinella is a better Jaques than we could dream, and Oliver Platt is the ultimate Touchstone. Go if you possibly can. Go wait on line beneath the shady trees of Central Park, or at the downtown theatre, or go join the Virtual Line at, but go see this well-nigh perfect production of As You Like It at the Delacorte Theatre before it closes much too soon at the end of June.

~ Molly Matera, signing off with a question:  Why isn’t this running two more weeks at the Delacorte?!

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