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The Public Theater is celebrating the 50th anniversary of free Shakespeare in the Park, which was established thanks to the dogged determination of the late Public Theater founder Joseph Papp. He and supporters had to battle the opposition of stubborn Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who spouted such nonsense as a theater in the park would ruin the grass. As it turned out, he was no match for Papp, to whom the public owes a great debt, not only for Shakespeare in the Park but for the Public Theater as a whole.
I felt that gratitude as I entered the Delacorte Theater on a lovely evening with a bit of a chill in the air to see this summer’s first attraction (June 21-30) “As You Like It,” directed impressively by Daniel Sullivan, with John Lee Beatty’s lovely nature-assisted scenic design for the Forest of Arden set in the American South, circa 1840. Before the play begins, there is a Bluegrass Band setting a foot-tapping mood, with original music by Steve Martin. The band is then incorporated into the play. That’s pretty much the only major indication of the change in Shakespeare’s time frame. The play unfolds without any of the intrusive, grating alterations that sometimes mark directorial determination to give a work of the Bard
a new look in a new venue.
Lily Rabe again demonstrates what a fine actress she is by portraying Rosalind, the banished daughter of Duke Senior (Andre Braugher), who has been overthrown and banished by the usurper Duke Frederick (also played by Braugher). David Furr makes a handsome Orlando, who becomes smitten when he meets Rosalind, also smitten with him. Orlando, unable to articulate his feelings, winds up expressing them in poems he attaches to trees throughout the forest. Celia, loyal friend to Rosalind, is played with charm and a bit of feistiness by the attractive Renee Elise Goldsberry.
Rosalind disguises herself as a man, Ganymede, and she make entertaining sport of fooling the susceptible Orlando. What is ridiculous, and it is the same in other productions, is that Rosalind looks much the same in her mere suggestion of a disguise, so that you would expect Orlando to recognize her instantly. But we’re asked to assume there’s a great difference in the spirit of the play, and since you don’t want to be churlish, it wouldn’t be right to feel like shouting out, “Hey, schmuck, it’s Rosalind.”
Rabe, accomplished actress that she is, plays Rosalind with a blend of determination, pleasure in carrying out her ruse in retaliation for Orlando’s inability to speak words of commitment, and fear of losing her love that reveals her emotional insecurity in the quest. She is a delight to watch in every shade of her performance.
The production gets a big comic boost from Oliver Platt as Touchstone, the court jester,
who at first just wants sex from the goatherd Audrey, jauntily portrayed by Donna Lynn Champlin, but eventually winds up getting married to her. Celia finds her mate in Orlando’s older brother Oliver (Omar Metwally), who turns out to be Mr. Nice Guy after his earlier contempt for Orlando. A note of class is brought to the production by Stephen Spinella as Jacques, an attendant to Duke Senior. Jacques’s cynical observations, wittily written and charmingly spoken, enliven the production.
The casting is on target. Brendan Averett is menacing as Charles, the hulking wrestler whom Orlando is deviously pitted against early in the play with the connivance of his brother. The necessary use of mikes in the outdoor setting helps the speech to be uniformly clearer than it often is in Shakespeare indoors.
The entire staging has a sprightly air about much of it, balanced with the political dark side of the story involving the power grab by Duke Frederick and the ultimate restoration of Duke Senior. With everything sorted out and the marriages taking place, a celebratory finale sends the audience home on a happy note, accentuated by the pleasure of having seen such a fine production. Delacorte Theater, Central Park, accessile by entering from 81st Street at Central Park West or from 79th Street at Fifth Avenue. Phone 212-539-8750. Reviewed June 22, 2012.