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As You Like It

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Lily Rabe and David Furr.
Photo by Joan Marcus

"Pastoral" is not the first word that comes to mind when considering the forest of Arden in Daniel Sullivan's handsome production of As You Like It at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Arden may remain a much-needed corrective to the hustle, bustle, and corruption of the city, but here it's a change of scenery more than a change of venue. Sullivan has perceived a world in which there's no border between the civilized and the un-: Everyone is fighting the same fight on different fronts.

For this play, one of William Shakespeare's most enjoyable but more puzzling comedies, that relationship is key. The links between the uptight town and the free-wheeling country (with the miscreants and the innocents perhaps not in the right places), just like the connections between people and (especially) between genders, are necessarily blurred beyond all recognition, until it's no longer possible to discern what's happening under what circumstances. (Beyond the fact that, as the character Jaques famously says, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players," that is.) Anyone tackling As You Like It must address this elemental issue.

Sullivan scores a major upfront victory by anchoring his production in a place and time when kings and commoners alike could realistically be on equal footing: the American frontier in the 1800s. It's tough to imagine a better time period for problems to be solved by wrestling matches, law and lawlessness to be functionally indistinguishable, and a young lady as fetching as Rosalind (played here by the typically glorious Lily Rabe) slipping so easily into men's clothes when banishment beckons. The expanding West of this time was a place where anything could happen, making it as Shakespearean as could be.

Every element under Sullivan's supervision fits rigorously into that approach. It's not just that Rosalind, who's captured the attention of the uneasy Orlando (David Furr) as he struggles to escape the clutches of his jealous brother (Omar Metwally), so effortlessly passes the between the worlds. It's as much that the shepherds and country maids are bewildered by the burgeoning possibilities around them; the scenes of hunting take on a grim, almost ritualistic necessity; and the philosophical ramblings of Jaques (an ideally cast Stephen Spinella) resound as much on the situations surrounding him as on the present and future of the United States itself.

Similar qualities are likewise embodied in John Lee Beatty's set, which for the city depicts little more than a couple of city walls fashioned from dozens of logs lashed haphazardly together, with an always-manned guard tower keeping watch over the animals both inside and outside the borders, and in the country is backed by an apparently endless expanse of trees; Jane Greenwood's homespun costumes; and the music that is so integral to the atmosphere, composed by Steve Martin (yes, that one): of the banjo-strumming, proto–country hoedown variety, encouraging foot stomping, line dancing, and a general good time even when adversity hangs over everyday life like a shadow.

Andre Braugher and the cast.
Photo by Joan Marcus

This commitment to theme is as admirable as it is complete, but it doesn't come without some sacrifices. These occur mostly in the way of comedy, which except in the more rarefied exchanges between the disguised-as-a-man Rosalind and Orlando on teaching and learning the lessons of love, does not receive its full due. Traditionally hilarious characters, like the jester Touchstone, Silvius and the shepherd girl Phoebe he pines for, and the bawdy Audrey, score at best intermittent laughs, through no direct fault of the fine performers playing them (Oliver Platt, Will Rogers, Susannah Flood, and Donna Lynne Champlin respectively). The evening as a whole lacks the air of frivolity that, on paper anyway, would make this an ideal Shakespeare in the Park outing.

But what's right as far as the acting is right enough to eclipse these minor stumbles, and any discussion of that must start with Rabe. She was excellent as Portia in The Merchant of Venice in the Park (and later on Broadway) in 2010, and is again now. She's created a passionate, intelligent, and deeply sensuous Rosalind, who's fighting as much with her own heart as she is the evolving standards of her age. If she's not particularly convincing in male drag, her stiff-backed style of masquerading as Ganymede suggests the appropriate swagger for the take-charge character. Blended with an almost perfect balancing of urban seriousness and rural lightness, Rabe excels as the object and instructor of Orlando's affections and as the center of a play (and setting) in which such confusions are the order of the day.

Although Furr possesses a resonant voice and a confident stature, he projects more than enough sensitivity to justify Orlando's descents into giddy speechlessness whenever confronted with Rosalind. His blending of feminine and masculine traits in this way nicely mirrors Rabe's, proving the two deserve each other long before they take the steps to make it happen, and their scenes together have just the right biting will-they-or-won't-they chemistry. Renee Elise Goldsberry is charming as Rosalind's companion Celia; and Andre Braugher finds resounding authority in both the usurping Duke Frederick and Duke Senior, the brother he deposed.

Yet whether either of the dueling dukes is really in command is an unanswered question. By casting one actor as both, Sullivan forces you to ponder what difference really exists between outsiders and the insiders. In an election year increasingly driven (and riven) by questions about the distinctions between groups, the message doesn't just evaporate into the humid summer air. It reminds us that even if superficial differences separate us, ultimately we're all on the same side. Whether that unifying spirit will catch hold in November remains to be seen, but it couldn't be more effective in the Park than it is right now.

As You Like It
Through June 30
Delacorte Theater in Central Park, Enter Central Park at 81st Street and Central Park West or 70th Street and Fifth Avenue
Running Time: 3 hours, including one intermission
Free tickets for Shakespeare in the Park are distributed via the free lines at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, and on the web via the Virtual Ticketing system
Performances: Mon 8:00 pm, Tues 8:00 pm, Wed 8:00 pm, Th 8:00 pm, Fri 8:00 pm, Sat 8:00 pm

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