New York Theater Review: AS YOU LIKE IT (Delacorte Theater in Central Park)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on August 30, 2022

in Theater-New York


To the mind of an ordinary Elizabethan, a forest in France might conjur thoughts of fairies, whimsy, beauty and adventure. While there is a Forest of Arden in England and a long-ago Forest of Ardenne in France, the Forest of Arden in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” is as much a place as a state of mind. This beautiful, pastoral setting provides a respite to heal, to restore, to rejuvenate, to love, to connect and to think – not just on what is but on what could be. At The Public Theater, part of the stated mission of its Public Works programming is, “….to create a space where we can not only reflect on the world as it is, but where we can propose new possibilities for what our society might be”. So it is any wonder that in the rollicking, thoroughly entertaining, community-grown, new musical adaptation of As You Like It, produced by Public Works and currently performing in Central Park, that the Forest of Arden has rarely been as colorful, inclusive, restorative, enchanting or exhilarating as its current manifestation, now onstage at the Delacorte Theater?

At a time when many bemoan the seemingly intractable divisions in American society, writers Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery have effectively adapted this comedic favorite – retaining the essential story and plot but broadening meanings and perceptions to include a large, multi-cultural, multi-generational, multiple sexual identity, mostly non-professional cast. Individually and as a group, these talented and endearing performers demonstrate a possible world vision of people overcoming personal division via a belief in unconditional love, which leaves the exiting audience with perhaps a bit more hope than they had when they arrived.

The writers have also teased out themes of acceptance, doubt, identity, the vagaries of romantic of love, filial duty and the fluid nature of sexuality that are already in play’s text. Using wonderful original songs that take their cues from these inherent themes, talented lyricist and composer Taub allows deeper insights into the characters and their situations with her witty, moving and always engaging musical creations. For instance, she gives an introspective I Want song to Rosalind (a luminous Rebecca Naomi Jones) called Rosalind, Be Merry. The song informs us early on that Rosalind is already struggling with the challenge of living her authentic self so her soon-to-be gender crossing experience will only complicate matters. Similarly, the production gives young Orlando (a thrilling Ato Blankson-Wood) his own I Want song,The Man I’m Supposed To Be, in which he rails against his seeming fate, determined to overcome the hard knocks of his young life. Taub uses this conceit throughout the show to deepen our understanding of these well-known characters yet still advance the story. Mixing Shakespeare’s text with this new music works very well.

Even with so many bodies and plotlines and costumes and dances and words and puppet-deers and a bridge simultaneously existing on a huge stage, director Woolery expertly keeps everything tight and moving and clear and entertaining. Her stage pictures are especially notablesmoothly telescoping in or broadening out as needed putting the multi-level, fairy-tale, scenic design by Myung Hee Cho to excellent use. Yet for all the pieces that need precise coordination, Woolery’s direction is practically invisible, allowing the audience to simply go on the ride. Ms. Woolery also utilizes non-professional performers in supporting roles, which proves another asset to the production. Rather than detracting, the roughness of these newbie actors is perfectly suited for their assigned parts, bringing an authenticity and immediacy to their work that is quite engaging.

Perhaps due to its themes of authenticity, love and forgiveness, the play is amazingly well-suited for 2022. A wealthy man has two sons, Oliver (an officious Renrick Palmer) and Orlando. When their father dies, the eldest son Oliver is supposed to take good care of his younger brother, Orlando. Yet he treats him little better than a servant. Meanwhile, another set of brothers, the ruling Dukes Senior (a charming Darius De Haas) and Frederick (a playfully evil Eric Pierre), have a falling out. Frederick usurps the rightful sovereign Senior, subsequently banishing his brother to the nearby Forest of Arden. This surprising turn of events upsets Rosalind, Frederick’s daughter, and her best friend and cousin Celia (a delightful Idania Quezada), Senior’s daughter. Once Frederick decides to give Rosalind the boot as well, Celia cannot stand to be parted from her dearest companion and the two young women, with the help of a clown named Touchstone (a scene-stealing Christopher M. Ramirez), run away to the forest with Rosalind disguised as a poor boy, Ganymede and Celia disguised as a shepherd girl, Aliena. From this complicated set-up, comedy ensues involving wrestlers, a hot shepherd man, a boy band, a same-sex loving shepherdess named Sylvia (a wonderful Brianna Cabrera), a bisexual shepherdess named Phoebe (a hilarious Bianca Edwards), unrequited love, a big feast, a bigger dance, some bad love poems, a not-so-melancholy but still annoying would be philosopher name Jaques (a funny Shaina Taub), a Darth Vader-ish bad guy, four weddings, a snake, a cowboy and a happy ending. It is an adaptation, after all. Production values are excellent across the board, including Emilio Sosa’s beautifully anachronistic costumes and James Ortiz’s jaw-dropping animal puppets.

In expanding Jaques’ famous “all the world’s a stage” speech into a song that expresses the underlying theme of this adaptation, the production scores its most sobering yet hopeful point. Where the original monologue is about the span of life (specifically, a man’s life) ending in oblivion, Taub’s song titled “All the World’s a Stage” turns that depressing sentiment on its head. Coupled with Sonya Tayeh and Billy Griffin’s sensitive choreography, the song contemplates the life trajectories of men AND women with a more hopeful conclusion – in Life, it’s more about the continuation than the end. And in this fine example of bringing different communities, artists, audiences and sensibilities together, this latest Public Works production lovingly underscores that continuation is key as well. And we like it.

photos by Joan Marcus

As You Like It
Public Theater
The Delacorte Theater in Central Park
nightly (except Mondays) at 8pm
opened August 30, 2022
ends on September 11, 2022
for info and free ticket distribution, visit The Public

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