Review: As You Like It
|David Furr, Renee Elise Goldsberry, and Lily Rabe in Shakespeare in the Park's As You Like It|
The problem with producing Shakespeare is that the Bard only wrote so many plays, which are mounted so often that making any individual production stand-out requires a combination of fantastic actors and strong directorial vision. Thankfully, the As You Like It which just opened Shakespeare in the Park’s 50th anniversary season features both in equal measure, breathing (mostly) new life into this oft-produced comedy.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, As You Like It begins when the evil Duke Frederick banishes a host of people, including his niece Rosalind and his daughter Celia, to go live in the Forest of Arden with his usurped brother Duke Senior. Just before her exile Rosalind meets and falls in love with the young Orlando, who also ends up in the Forest of Arden for separate reasons. Unfortunately, in order to avoid execution Rosalind has disguised herself as a boy, and when she and Orland meet again he does not recognize her. What follows is a series of comic misunderstandings involving a host of supporting characters which eventually sort themselves out just in time for the play’s ending.
As You Like It has never been my favorite Shakespeare, but remains a popular choice for theatre companies due in part to the showcase it offers for the actress playing Rosalind. This production is blessed with the sensational Lily Rabe in the central role, who gives a dynamic performance that expertly balances comedy and pathos. Intelligent and charismatic, Rabe lights up the stage with a captivating interpretation that proves she is one of the most gifted actresses of her generation by being entertaining, moving, and most of all truthful. It is unfortunate that Rosalind isn’t more of a presence in the first act, as the production sags slightly when Rabe isn’t around to elevate it.
That is not to discredit the efforts of her uniformly excellent costars, who combine to create one of the finest acting ensembles of the year. As Orlando, David Furr projects a humble and quiet confidence that keeps his lovelorn youth from becoming insufferably saccharine (even the other characters tease Orlando about his overly earnest proclamations of love). As Rosalind’s cousin and best friend Celia, Renee Elise Goldsberry has excellent chemistry with Rabe and provides a welcome contrast to Rosalind and Orlando’s platitudes. Oliver Platt makes for a hilarious Touchstone, the court jester who accompanies the cousins into the forest, and the veteran actor is particularly skilled in making the Shakespearean wordplay comprehensible to a modern audience. And as the melancholy Jaques, Stephen Spinella gives an ingeniously underplayed performance which leaves the audience in stitches (he also does an excellent job with the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech).
The glue holding this entire ensemble together is director Daniel Sullivan, who scored a similar triumph two years ago with the Al Pacino-led Merchant of Venice. Sullivan is a fantastic director with an excellent understanding of pace and narrative clarity, and even those unfamiliar with the play’s twists and turns should have no trouble following this production. Sullivan coaxes wonderfully layer performances out of his actors, and continues to be a wonderful asset to the Public Theatre in general and Shakespeare in the Park in particular.
John Lee Beatty’s set design does a great job of evoking the play’s whimsical setting, and it’s a shame the Delacorte’s thrust staging doesn’t allow him to bring his intricate forest setting further downstage. Jane Greenwood’s period costumes are quite beautiful, and the original grassroots score by Steve Martin does an excellent job of setting the production’s mood.
Overall, this As You Like It is a first-rate production of one of Shakespeare’s proven crowd-pleasers, and is an excellent way to spend an evening in Central Park. Lily Rabe’s Rosalind is a marvel, and Daniel Sullivan’s assured direction helps reinvigorate this comedy even for those who are intimately familiar with it. The impending arrival of the highly anticipated Into the Woods will likely prevent As You Like It from extending its limited run, so any interested parties should rush over to the Delacorte to catch it before it’s gone.