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NEW YORK – Can we just go ahead and sign up Daniel Sullivan for permanent Shakespeare in the Park duty? More than any of the repeat directors of this favorite summertime ritual of New York theater, Sullivan consistently gets it right. His Twelfth Night three years ago with Anne Hathaway was a ravishing evening, its tricky balance of playfulness, darkness and dizzying romance pulled off with impeccable finesse. The same goes for another popular comedy, As You Like It. Headlined by Lily Rabe, the expertly calibrated production serves as an exaltation of love and community that erases the divisions of the world for a magical three hours.
This is not among Shakespeare’s more under-exposed works in New York; it turns up in significant productions almost as often as King Lear. The play’s last Central Park outing was a complete misfire in 2005, an inert walk-through torpedoed by the absence of a coherent vision and a lack of chemistry between romantic leads Rosalind and Orlando.
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Sam Mendes’ 2010 staging for The Bridge Project was similarly lacking, overemphasizing the early-action gloom to such an extent that it dampened the pastoral comedy’s steady blossoming of joy. Peter Hall’s 2005 British import, with his daughter Rebecca Hall playing opposite Dan Stevens (now of Downton Abbey), was far more harmonious. But Sullivan’s is arguably the most beguiling interpretation New York has seen of this play in some time.
Going head to head with Al Pacino, Rabe brought a coltish quality reminiscent of a young Katharine Hepburn to Portia in Sullivan’s acclaimed The Merchant of Venice two years ago. Returning in another trousers role as the cross-dressing exiled noblewoman, Rosalind, she’s plucky, resourceful and skeptical about love even as it overwhelms her. As You Like It generally sinks or soars on the charm and intelligence of its Rosalind. But the uniform strength of the entire ensemble here, and their invigorating ease with the language, is what distinguishes Sullivan’s luminous production.
Among the standouts, Andre Braugher does commanding double duty as reverse sides of the same coin. He plays the malevolent Duke Frederick, a tyrant whose power is tinged by paranoia, and his brother Duke Senior (Rosalind’s father), banished from the court to the Forest of Arden where he believes there is “good in everything.” The scenes with his band of fellow exiles have a touching double-edge, conveying the freedom of life unencumbered by politics, ambition or greed, where questions of rank have faded in importance; but also the harsh reality of decent men unjustly fallen on hard times, shut out of a society that cheats them of their due.
Jaques, the most melancholy and independent-minded member of the exiled Duke’s entourage, is always among the play’s more intriguing figures, but Stephen Spinella (a double Tony winner for Angels in America) performs small miracles with the role. With his seemingly effortless line readings, he finds every ounce of sardonic humor and ruminative sorrow in the bantering libertine. Spinella’s handle on the verse is mesmerizing, and his delivery shapes the famed “Seven ages of man” monologue into a haunting mini-narrative. This performance alone makes the production unmissable.
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A role that often becomes tiresome in lesser productions is Touchstone, the court clown and windy philosopher who tags along with the incognito Rosalind and her devoted royal cousin Celia (the lovely Renee Elise Goldsberry) on their forest exile. His jollity can tend to seem strained. But Oliver Platt is quite wonderful at mixing mischief with eccentric wisdom, exploiting his outsize physique to great comic advantage.
There’s fine work also from Will Rogers and Susannah Flood as the bumpkin shepherd couple whose romance goes through a rocky gestation; and Donna Lynne Champlin as rustic Audrey, the horny goatherd who exhibits her lust for Touchstone in a lively step dance.
The real surprise, however, is David Furr, easily the best Orlando in my experience of this play. A dashing figure, he’s brooding and fatalistic in the early scenes, in which his mistreatment at the hands of his evil brother Oliver (Omar Metwally) drives him to almost suicidal ends. But as he’s struck by Cupid’s arrow on first acquaintance of Rosalind, he is instantly empowered. He maintains an air of seriousness even while becoming increasingly light-headed – giddy with love and disarming irrationality. Furr’s scenes with Macintyre Dixon as Adam, his late father’s loyal old servant, are profoundly affecting.
More crucially, Furr and Rabe are ideally paired. That makes Rosalind’s protracted game-playing less frustrating than usual as – in the guise of her male alter ego, Ganymede – she teaches and tests Orlando about the nature of love.
Sullivan directs this action with such briskness and lightness of touch that the play’s wildly contrived ending – saintly transformations, righted wrongs, multiple marriages – is arrived at without the nagging sense of artifice that often accompanies Shakespeare at his most whimsical.
The choice to set the production in the antebellum rural American South, circa 1840, seems driven less by thematic than atmospheric concerns. There’s no correlation in the text to slavery, or to the simmering frictions with the North that led to the Civil War. And the court here is more of a fortress than a plantation. But even if it’s merely an excuse to incorporate the toe-tapping original bluegrass score by Steve Martin, it’s a charming conceit. Played by four onstage musicians (fiddle, banjo, guitar and bass), with stirring vocals led by Jesse Lenat as the good Duke’s attendant, Amiens, the music has a rootsy, folksy flavor that enhances the play’s depiction of liberating escape from the constricting roles and rules of power.
John Lee Beatty’s set transforms fluidly from the forbidding timber walls and watchtower of the court scenes to the thicket of greenery and grassy clearing of the Forest of Arden, creating the illusion of being a natural feature of Central Park, rather than a stage. And Jane Greenwood’s witty period costumes add colorful definition to the characters.
A large part of what makes Sullivan’s Park productions so incisive is his understanding that, in this context especially, Shakespeare’s plays are best treated not with fussy reverence but as popular entertainment. The director juggles lowbrow with highbrow, verbal jousts with physical comedy, sobriety with revelry – the latter notably so in the final-act hoedown. He uses music in inventive, cinematic ways to underscore the intoxicating spell of love, and in a play about exile, he succeeds for the duration of the action in banishing all our troubles.
Venue: Delacorte Theater, New York (runs through June 30)
Cast: Lily Rabe, David Furr, Andre Braugher, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Oliver Platt, Stephen Spinella, Jesse Lenat, Robert Joy, Brendan Averett, Omar Metwally, Macintyre Dixon, Jon Devries, Will Rogers, Susannah Flood, Donna Lynne Champlin, Brendan Titley, Andrew Hovelson
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Daniel Sullivan
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Music: Steve Martin, Greg Pliska
Sound designer: Acme Sound Partners
Presented by The Public Theater
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