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As You Like It
To be sure, As You Like It takes wing when it’s staged outdoors. It enhances the play’s pastoral mode and encourages one to appreciate Shakespeare’s “green world,” epitomized by the Forest of Arden. No matter how many times you have seen this comedy, when you are in the center of Central Park at the Delacorte Theater, you are more likely to give your whole thought to the familiar lines and action.
Based on Thomas Lodge’s prose narrative Rosalynde, Shakespeare softened the harsh plot of the original (Oliver was a horrible villain in Lodge’s 1590 romance), and infused his own genius by inventing the characters of Jaques and Touchstone. Many critics like to point out that Shakespeare created a fairy tale landscape in As You Like It. Indeed he did. There’s the wicked Duke Frederick, the good Duke Senior, a mean-spirited Oliver de Boys who has neglected his legal responsibility to educate his youngest brother Orlando, two princesses Celia and Rosalind, and a cohort of dislocated persons who “fleet the time carelessly as they did in the golden world.”
Naïve or not, Shakespeare’s fairy tale machinery gives the play a beautiful shimmer and enables the court figures to hie themselves to the Forest of Arden in a wink. Once there, you will no doubt turn your attention to the wanderings of the foresters and the four sets of lovers. Still, the heroine Rosalind is the heart of the play (she is Shakespeare’s most important female character and carries 27 percent of the lines!), and watching her in the guise of Ganymede teaching Orlando about love, is the real draw of this play.
Surprises abound in this As You Like It. For starters, there’s a band onstage (Tashina Clarridge on fiddle, Jordan Tice on guitar, Tony Trischka on banjo, Skip Ward on bass) in various scenes. They play bluegrass music composed by the phenomenal Steve Martin (according to a May 31st interview in Go San Angelo, the famous comedian is “in the midst of his fourth full-time career”). As You Like It is deeply lyrical, and has more songs punctuating its text than any other work in the canon. Martin thus has huge demands placed on his talent, and he delivers with twangy perfection. Don’t miss his one-line bio in the program! It reads: “Steve Martin is currently writing songs with his lyricist, William Shakespeare, who is always late (Get it?). But joking aside, Martin’s score really takes hold here.
The production is also bound together by John Lee Beatty’s rustic set design and Jane Greenwood’s crisply patterned costumes. Walking into the Delacorte Theater, you immediately glimpse an out-sized wooden fort at center stage, which later slides away to reveal the Forest of Arden in Act 2, Scene 1. Beatty’s dual set is spot on, organically fusing Shakespeare’s “green world” to the real green shades of Central Park.
As You Like It is relatively undramatic compared to Shakespeare’s other plays. Little wonder that many scholars see it as a symposium on romantic love and country life. The literary critic Paul Alpers cites in his celebrated book What is Pastoral?, that Shakespeare liked to investigate “pastoral myths” and figure out what made them tick. Since the Bard was a country-bred boy himself, he could debunk with brilliant ease any false notions about country life. Shakespeare’s tough-mindedness comes out in spades in As You Like It. So does his genuine love of the forest, woodlands, and its inhabitants, native-born or not.
. The two most unforgettable performances on this stage are from Lily Rabe as the resilient Rosalind and from Stephen Spinella as the cynical philosopher Jaques. But they don't shine alone. Also outstanding are Oliver Platt as the jester Touchstone, and Robert Furr as the love-sick Orlando, who strews his bad poems on Arden’s trees. Actually, there really aren't any bad performances from this very able cast.
This sparkling production so intelligently shepherded by Sullivan (this is his seventh production with The Public, including his Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino) makes other recent stagings of this comedy seem old hat. Even the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production at the New York Armory last summer relied more on the crisp execution of Shakespeare’s verse than on a profound reworking of the1599 comedy. This current presentation is more attuned to American sensibilities, and everybody’s wallet (free tickets are distributed on day of performance!). Too bad Joe Papp, the founder of The Public Theater, can't see this version.
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