N.Y. theater review: ‘As You Like It'

Posted: June 22, 2012

Shakespeare's world of comedy is filled with fools, weddings, characters in disguise and mistaken identities, hypocrites and usurpers. Now, it also has a good-old American type hoedown.

In the Public Theatre's delightful production of As You Like It, which opened the 50th season of Shakespeare in the Park at the open-air Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, you'd swear the forest of Arden is somewhere in Appalachia. And why not? Shakespeare infused the play with songs for which he wrote "hey-nonny-nonny" lyrics, and now comes Steve Martin — who knows a thing or two about banjos and such — to score the Bard. The result is a toe-thumping rhythm that complements the production's own beat and adds a proper party element to this comedy of the lovelorn.

The generous dollops of music are played and sung by four game musicians who hang out in the forest of Arden with the banished court of Duke Senior (a wise and gracious Andre Braugher), sent there by his brother, Duke Frederick (a nasty and rotten Andre Braugher — he plays both dukes). The tunes enliven Shakespeare's tale, which he wrote with a plot, a subplot, and sub-subplots that stretched past three hours when I saw the production in previews before it opened Thursday night.

But just as the play seems to become evermore convoluted in its second half, As You Like It also begins to coalesce — two plot elements deal with brothers who overpower one another and four more with the vagaries of different lovers (and of love). The result is a neatly packaged play, particularly in the Central Park production, which has the endearing quality of being set in the woods. (So is the other Public Theatre show in the park this summer, Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods.)

Central Park is cleverly outfitted with John Lee Beatty's set of additional trees on the Delacorte stage, a looming and angular log-built fortress and a forest clearing that looks as if it could actually be Central Park but is not. This perfect setting hosts a top-notch cast led by Lily Rabe as the sweet Rosalind and David Furr as Orlando, who is smitten by her; Renee Elise Goldsberry as Rosalind's first cousin and best gal-pal and Omar Metwally as a dishonest heir of family wealth; Will Rogers in pursuit of Susannah Flood as sheepherders in the forest; a wonderfully foolish Oliver Platt and Donna Lynne Champlin as the wench he comes to adore; and the wry Stephen Spinella as a melancholy brooder.

They chase each other in Jane Greenwood's impressive period costumes. They also pine for each other, sometimes fight (master fight director Rick Sordelet does himself proud with the first-act mayhem) and sometimes they sing and dance along with the musicians (Mimi Lieber's carefree choreography). In this production, As You Like It fits, both as a title and a description.

Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.

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