What could be more ideal for Shakespeare In The Park than As You Like It? The realistic looking trees and setting of the forest of Arden fit perfectly with the surroundings. Thank heaven the production lives up to the scenery.
The show opens on the outside of a realistic looking fort, complete with soldiers, watchtower and sturdy looking gates. The action takes place in front of it. It is here that Rosalind (Lily Rabe) and her first cousin, Celia (Renee Elise Goldsberry), set up the plot. Rosalind’s father, the Duke, has been usurped by his evil brother, Frederick, and has fled to the forest. The two women have a real sisterly chemistry, and we get the feeling that they are indeed very close. Soon, they witness a wrestling match between the professional, Charles (Brendan Averett), and a callow youth named Orlando (David Furr), with whom Rosalind is instantly smitten. Orlando’s older brother, Oliver (Omar Metwally), has had the match set up in hopes of getting rid of his pesky sibling once and for all. Duke Frederick decides to banish Rosalind; Celia follows her. They agree to take along their friend Touchstone (Oliver Platt), the court jester. The three escape to the woods, “to liberty, not to banishment.”
Andre Braugher plays both Dukes, and with such finesse, it would be easy to become confused as to whether or not two actors are involved. Yes, these two brothers look alike, but the usurper is spewing venom, while the deposed Duke is the epitome of grace and charity. Braugher makes the complete switch in a matter of moments, and plays each role to perfection.
I am happy to announce that neither Braugher nor the other members of the cast use the affected English accent which too many American actors think makes them sound Shakespearean. For my money, unless one is veddy veddy good at it, the phony pronunciation comes across as lame and distracting. Kudos to director Daniel Sullivan for sparing us this travesty.
The vocal quality is good all around, with one puzzling exception. At times, the lovely Lilly Rabe’s voice sounds weirdly gravelly. The occasional harshness of her speech is in direct contrast to her appeal; with auburn hair, in a flattering green dress, she is every inch the classic heroine. She has a confidence and poise rarely seen in such a young actor, and she’s well up to the pace that director Sullivan has set for the production. Rabe is, of course, the daughter of the late actress Jill Clayburgh, and the award-winning playwright David Rabe. She was the toast of the town two summers ago playing Portia in The Merchant of Venice, and with any luck, she’ll be a Public Theater staple for many years to come.
I am not a fan of Shakespeare’s fools. The crotch grabbing, farting, and incomprehensible dirty jokes grow tedious very quickly. Oliver Platt manages to elevate his clown to the point where he’s not only amusing, but he also has a plausible relationship with Rosalind and Celia.
Stephen Spinella, as the melancholy Jacques (here pronounced “Jock-wheeze”), is nothing short of sublime. He conquers the dilemma all actors face in performing a famous soliloquy. He eases into “The Seven Ages of Man” so effortlessly, we are drawn in by the grace and simple truth of his recitation. The greatest compliment I can pay Spinella is that having heard the speech dozens of times, I felt I was experiencing it for the first time. No sawing the air, no loud proclamation, just a thoughtful reflection on the state of mankind. Bravo!
I’m uncertain of the motivation in setting the show during the Civil War, but the scenic design by John Lee Beatty achieves brilliance when the fort opens up to reveal the forest. Jane Greenwood’s costume design is always pitch perfect. Wisely, a summary of the madly complicated plot is provided in the program. It would be a daunting task to find fault with Daniel Sullivan’s concept and execution of the production.
It’s an absolute stroke of genius to have a live bluegrass band onstage. The fiddle, guitar, bass, and banjo music was composed by Steve Martin, and it is a delight. The musicians are terrific, and the overly effect adds immeasurably to the dialogue and action of the play.
Whenever I go to the Delacorte, I’m always struck by what a uniquely New York experience this is. In the audience are people of every age and color. A woman in a headscarf sits next to a girl with multiple piercings. Some ladies are stylishly dressed, clearly having come from an upscale dinner. Girls are in short shorts—and so are some of the boys.
This year marks the milestone of fifty years of Shakespeare in the Park. The stars who have performed on the Delacorte stage, often at the beginning of their stellar career, are much too numerous to list. And those of us who have sat in the audience, while the sun sets, and ambient noise reminds us that we are outside in the City, will gladly continue to brave heat, chilly evening air, and the occasional thunderstorm for the privilege. Here’s to another fifty glorious years.
Photos by Joan Marcus:
1. Renee Elise Goldsberry and Lily Rabe
2. Paul Taylor, Andre Braugher and Renee Elise Goldsberry
3. Lily Rabe and David Furr
4. Andre Braugher and the cast
As You Like It
The Public Theater Presents Shakespeare In The Park
Through Saturday, June 30th
Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, and International Association of Theatre Critics.