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New York City Theater

"As You Like It"
Shakespeare in the Park

Comedy is cruel, melancholy and pessimistic. Sound contradictory? Think of comedy as a giving up, a giving in. Usually ending with a dance and wedding, comedy throws in the towel, declaring to society, “Ok, you win.”

Shakespeare knew that, as he knew just about everything else. Near the end of “As You Like It,” now enjoying a complex reading in Central Park, the misanthropic Jaques leaves the merry band of revelers to throw in his lot with the newly deposed Duke, who finally abjured the power he usurped from his brother, the rightful Duke.

In this production, which is directed with his usual balance of merriment and poignancy by Daniel Sullivan, another character also sees through the mirth. “I sometimes do believe,” he says, “and sometimes do not.” That’s Orlando, of all people, as embodied in a superb performance by David Furr who, if the stars align, should soon find his name atop marquees.

That these two characters should dominate is unusual but not surprising, since they are the two most put upon, most joked about. Jaques is the dark underside of the clownish Touchstone who sees humor everywhere. When Jaques, embodied by Stephen Spinella in perhaps his finest performance, launches into the great Seven Ages of Man speech, he does so with objectivity, not bitterness. From “mewling and puking” infant to “second childishness and mere oblivion,” our journey is foretold and Spinella tells it with one hand metaphorically on his aching heart.

Orlando is toyed with by Rosalind who, disguised as a boy, “teaches” him how to woo and how to love. Of course, these two are destined for each other.

But, along with others, they’ve been exiled to the Forest of Arden which, like all forests in all tales, is a place not just for hiding but for learning. Pure, natural, honest, it’s a contrast to the corrupt city, here represented by a formidable stockade, guarded by soldiers.

The setting has been changed to the American South, circa 1840. John Lee Beatty’s scenic design brings the surrounding Central Park on stage, lit so beautifully by Natasha Katz.

The cast, headed by Lily Rabe, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Andre Braugher, Omar Metwally and Macintyre Dixon, approaches the poetry naturally. The characters and plot come across with clarity, not pretension. As a bonus, Steve Martin (yes, that one) has written an ingratiating Bluegrass score, played by a live band.

It’s a fun evening, but its traces of melancholy make it more than that. When the banished Duke talks of feeling the forest’s “penalty of Adam,” he might be referring to God’s banishment of the First Couple. Shakespeare’s forest is innocence removed from “painted pomp.” To find “good in everything” sounds nice but Jaques knows the perils of pure hedonism when he concludes, “I for other than dancing matters.”

--David A. Rosenberg
June 23, 2012

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