Bernard Shaw, who loved ridiculing Shakespeare almost as much as he loved reading, seeing, and quoting his works, often suggested that As You Like It (Delacorte Theater) had been given its title as an instance of the Bard’s contempt for the popular taste to which he was compelled to cater. Shaw railed at the arbitrariness of the play’s action, the lameness of Touchstone’s jokes, and the one-dimensionality of the characters. Responding to Shakespeare’s tale of the deposed Duke’s daughter, Rosalind (Lily Rabe), who disguises herself as a boy to court her likewise-exiled love, Orlando (David Furr), Shaw spoke of “the manufacture of Rosalinds and Orlandos” as “something that really ought to be done in a jam factory.”
But Shaw’s railing did not cure the English-speaking world of its love for As You Like It, which has continued unabated to this day. It didn’t cure Shaw’s own love for the play, to which he constantly alludes. And although I’m in agreement with him about all its shortcomings, recollecting his raillery didn’t keep me from having a thoroughly pleasant time at Daniel Sullivan’s production, with which the Public Theater is celebrating half a century of free Shakespeare in Central Park.
I’ve seen more pointed, and more cohesive, As You Like It‘s. And though every role in Sullivan’s production is tolerably well played, I’ve seen each of them better performed on other occasions—a fair number of them in previous Park productions. But that matters less than the overall cheerful spirit of the occasion: Sullivan takes the play as an easygoing pleasantry. He views its title, you might say, not with the dismissive tone Shaw finds in it, but as a generous host’s gesture of welcome. No directorial gimmickry or newly darkened interpretations for Sullivan. As in his greenswarded Twelfth Night three years ago, the effect he supplies is of a boisterous, airy, outdoor party, with everybody in good spirits and an amusing story re-enacted pleasantly, almost lackadaisically. In other words, as you like it.
John Lee Beatty’s ingeniously landscaped setting, a stockade wall that opens to reveal a meadow backed by trees, looks fit for picnicking. Jane Greenwood’s bright costumes, which put Twelfth Night in Jane Austen’s time, move forward here to mid-19th-century America, peopling the stage with folksy figures from genre painters like William Sidney Mount. Steve Martin and Greg Pliska’s music completes the feeling of folksiness. Far from the harsh forest haunted by aristocrats in exile and re-enactments of courtly love, this cozy pastoral playground mocks the whole notion that “Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly.” Surely man’s ingratitude has little effect on this sociable crew.
Sullivan’s single innovative stroke—having one actor play both the good Duke in exile and his vicious, usurping younger brother—only enhances the gentle mood. Andre Braugher, as effective in sage contemplativeness as he is in tyrannical fury, makes the bad brother’s instant conversion easy to believe, since we’ve also known him as a good guy all along. I could wish that Furr’s handsome Orlando had something like Braugher’s graceful, resonant speech. Furr sometimes seems to be wrestling the lines as strenuously as he wrestles Charles. (One of Sullivan’s odder bits of staging, by the way, makes Orlando appear to have been defeated by Charles before their match even begins.)
Rabe’s forthright Rosalind, lanky and Amazonian, is always appealing, though manifestly a frontier-town tomboy rather than a believable boy. It’s her ill luck to have come to the role so soon after Juliet Rylance, in the Bridge Project’s version, spun a gauzy web of enchantment over it. Stephen Spinella’s Jacques casts only an amicably somber shadow over the proceedings; MacIntyre Dixon creates a comically crusty Adam, and Renee Elise Goldsberry an adorably pert, puckish Celia. Oliver Platt manages to wring a few laughs out of Touchstone, which is high praise from me: I’ve finally concluded that Shakespeare meant Touchstone’s material to be unfunny; the running joke should be its constant failure to go over. Exactly what you’d expect from the court jester of a usurping Duke with no sense of humor. But that sort of fun might be too subtle for a moonlit summer night in the park, where the fun must be handled simply, the way we groundlings like it. As Shakespeare well knew.