It feels wrong to bridle at a Public Theater/Public Works production; this, above all theater productions in New York, is the blue chip of community involvement, including not just trained actors but groups and people who love theater and want to be part of it under the inky night sky of Central Park. Public Works’ productions feature multitudes on stage, young and old, cultural diversity to the fore. It is wonderful to see.
As we are told at the beginning of this musical production of As You Like It (Delacorte Theater, to September 11)—first staged in 2017, adapted by Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery, with music and lyrics by Taub and directed by Woolery—this is New York. And we cheer, because we should cheer it. Free theater. In Central Park. Starring the people for the people.
As You Like It is a pleasant Shakespeare comedy, one of the lightest on its feet (here it’s around 90 minutes) with a cast of characters who get lost, and inevitably find themselves more profoundly, in the Forest of Arden. There is, of course, family drama at the heart of it; two brotherly rulers at war for not very elaborated-on reasons; one, Duke Senior (Darius de Haas) who seems nice, exiled in the forest, one, Duke Frederick (Eric Pierre), who seems meaner, on the throne.
In this production beyond the nice one being a total doll to every lost soul in the forest and the mean one—with his own hail-he approaches jingle—growling that he wants to find his brother, there is not much to say about that.
This critic loved the 2017 production, yet perhaps time—and all that has happened in between—makes this production feel different, discordant even. “Do not fear, all are welcome here,” sounded an urgent note of defiance when said in the disturbing early years of the Trump presidency. Now, after years of COVID and New York kind of coming back, kind of not in the odd, jerky way it has, the As You Like It vibe of sweet sincerity and we-can-do-this feels like an oddly lackluster pat on our urban heads. This Arden has gone; why not reimagine it given all that has happened?
The central lovers Rosalind (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and Orlando (Ato Blankson-Wood) are separated for exasperatingly stupid reasons that this production even takes a potshot at near the end—rightly earning collective audience laughter—that wait, what, Orlando didn’t realize Rosalind was a woman disguised as a man all along. It was so obvious. And it is.
Both actors are charming, but the play demands patience, rather than eliciting pleasure, for the disguise-thing to work. This production gives us an Orlando not saying much, but becoming confused—and again, we shared this—at Rosalind-as-a-man endlessly interrogating him on what kind of man he is. (Orlando’s answer never rises beyond the “Think I’m kinda OK, actually.”)
This musical As You Like It comes with modern songs, by Taub, with the masterstroke inclusion of a group of male backing dancers who sway like the best of NSYNC and Backstreet Boys at a couple of moments that rouse the production from its otherwise amiable stupor (Blankson-Wood’s “Will U Be My Bride” is the best song of the night).
Lucha Libre wrestlers from the Bronx Wrestling Federation participate in the play’s key wrestling scene, but the limply staged bouts do not match the hype and flashing lights. As You Like It the play disappears behind various bits of narrative and musical foliage. It’s odd that when Shakespeare is finally spoken, it feels such a surprise; more Shakey would be great.
Rosalind goes on and on about wanting to test Orlando, and then in one song bemoans her terrible relationship with her father, the kind and good Duke Senior, which is weird because none of that is apparent in what we see of them together at the end. Celia (Idania Quezada), Rosalind’s cousin and partner in crime, is given nothing to do, except listen to Rosalind’s frenzied kvetching. The play finally pushes her to Oliver (Renrick Palmer), but the production is not very interested in this.
Taub herself plays Jaques as a kind of slack-jawed Daria, who’s just over all this nonsense; Jaques just wishes people would focus on the futility of existence, given the imminence of environmental destruction, which we’ve all brought on ourselves. Too true, and have at it.
“In reality Arden comes across unintentionally like a super-irritating hippy-dippy cult”
The Forest of Arden itself is its own puzzle. The production seems to think that its diverse population, who are all kind and share their food, is an advertisement enough for a vision of utopia. Yet in reality Arden comes across unintentionally like a super-irritating hippy-dippy cult; the kind of people glassily smiling and smugly offering things that would unnerve you enough to go, running and hungry, away from all this oppressive Kumbaya BS into the night.
As in 2017, a gallery of queer couples takes center stage, as familiar characters are re-gendered. This is to be welcome, except, gah, they really seem to be terrible couplings. A female-female coupling between Silvia (Brianna Cabrera) and Phoebe (Bianca Edwards) seems more a disquieting emblem of futile obsession than love against the odds.
The male coupling between Touchstone (Christopher M. Ramirez) and Andy (Jonathan Jordan) is a couple that just doesn’t make sense. Andy seems sweet, Touchstone a damaged weirdo. And things get really weird when Andy meets another sweet guy, William (Damion Allen); they share the hottest, cutest dance of the night and have great chemistry, but the narrative makes his true-intended Touchstone. No, you want to shout: wrong guy!
It says a lot that as well as querying Orlando’s powers of perception not realizing Rosalind is a woman, the production also feels emboldened enough to throw its hands in the air and make a joke of the hastily-set up weddings about to happen near the end of a play when nothing seems convincingly resolved.
Everyone comes together at the end, the stage full of the diversity that is the heart of Public Works. It’s impossible not to feel exactly the kind of pride—in New York, and all it embraces—the Public is itself rightly proud of through this excellent theater program. Sadly, venerable ambition doesn’t always make for great theater.
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