NEW YORK (AP) — To celebrate 50 years of summer performances at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, The Public Theater has picked the perfect Shakespeare work — "As You Like It." Three words explain why: Forest of Arden.
Directed with wit and verve by Daniel Sullivan, the production wonderfully celebrates the park itself, with clusters of trees sprouting on stage and John Lee Beatty's set making it fittingly unclear where the park ends and the stage begins.
"As You Like It" is again a reminder — should one ever be needed — of why the Shakespeare in the Park program is so magical. Led by Lily Rabe as Rosalind and David Furr as Orlando, and augmented with new and wonderful bluegrass music written by Steve Martin, it is smart, confident and triumphant.
"I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it," says Celia, played wonderfully by Renee Elise Goldsberry, referring to the forest but just as much to the production.
This "As You Like It" is set in the rural American South around 1840 — hence bluegrass and Jane Greenwood's costumes featuring cravats, waistcoats, straw hats, whips and "Gone With the Wind" gowns. In a nod to the setting, Celia calls Rosalind by the slangy "Cuz" instead of "Cousin."
Many elements of Shakespeare's comedies are present here — cross-dressing, fools and heroic wanderings — and Sullivan has allowed his actors to milk every laugh, particularly Oliver Platt as the wise buffoon Touchstone. Sullivan's fingerprints are also evident when soon-to-be-lovers lock their eyes on each other and pause dramatically.
It is a play that explores the rift between court life and natural life, but this production doesn't hide its favoritism of the latter, walling off the urban world inside a wood-planked fortress that the audience never gets to peer inside. No matter: It is forgotten as soon as the fortress is split open, revealing lush trees, rocks and even a treehouse or two.
Rabe, who starred as Portia in Sullivan's recent "The Merchant of Venice," and Goldsberry, who was superb in "Good People," are a joy to watch as they giggle like schoolchildren, help each other fall in love and suffer pain together. Their deep friendship — "coupled and inseparable" — includes gentle chiding, comical interruptions and funny sideways glances, creating an onstage chemistry that is special to watch.
While Stephen Spinella — as a very droll, almost medically melancholy Jaques — gets perhaps the play's best lines when he delivers the famous Seven Ages of Man speech, Rosalind gets off a few gems. She counsels a shepherdess not to be too hasty about a marriage proposal, "Sell when you can. You are not for all markets," and, to Orlando, "Men are April when they woo, December when they wed."
Furr is an understated but effective Orlando, except when he's really, really hungry, then watch out! And Andre Braugher, often the heavy in the park, gets to be both evil as the unreasonable Duke Senior and also his very sweet brother, Duke Frederick. Donna Lynne Champlin is a lusty, funny Audrey.
"As You Like It" is often described as Shakespeare's most musical play and the addition of bluegrass melodies to the Bard's lyrics are so fitting integrated that they overwhelm any initial skepticism. A four-part band — fiddle, guitar, banjo and bass led by Tony Trischka — winningly plays the music onstage, sometimes part of the action and sometimes apart. A few of the tunes are so well done, you'll hope Martin will get them recorded.
As for the Forest of Arden, there's clearly something special going on. The lost and frightened enter it and find food, kindness and comfort. Broken lovers enter separately and become linked — the play ends with four weddings. Everything seems better in the forest, everything works out in the end. Just like, it seems, in the park.