If on a warm September night you amble through Central Park, you might find a group of hopeful people gathered around the Delacorte, waiting for free tickets to Shakespeare in the Park. Inside the open-air theatre, there’s a late-summer-amusement-park spirit to Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery’s musical adaptation of “As You Like It,” which comes merrily stuffed with absurdities like shepherds with no sheep and a hippie commune run by a hierarchy-averse Duke. The audience is greeted with maximalist mayhem as the stage shakes beneath an enormous cast, which includes some seventy singing-and-dancing everyday New Yorkers. Is this theatre? A community pageant? A parade? It’s hard to tell. It’s hot—definitions melt.
Rosalind (Rebecca Naomi Jones), one of Shakespeare’s sharpest heroines, has fled a hostile court for the Forest of Arden. Her father, the usurped Duke Senior (Darius de Haas, in swinging, welcome-to-my-key-party mode), has sought refuge there, too, but she barely looks for him. Instead, she and her plucky cousin Celia (Idania Quezada) and the jester Touchstone (Christopher M. Ramirez) are in search of romance and freedom. In order to enjoy their Rumspringa safely, Rosalind disguises herself as a young man, Ganymede, and Celia pretends to be a commoner. Everybody falls in love with someone, with the exception of Rosalind: she’s already entranced by the young Orlando de Boys, who turns up under the trees as well.
The lines characters say are razored-down, heavily edited Shakespeare, but some context and the musical numbers are new. In the original, Orlando wins Rosalind’s heart at a wrestling contest; here, the bout is a pro-wrestling match, with the (actual) Bronx Wrestling Federation providing the talent. Orlando’s opponent is a masked lucha-libre champion who, after a bit of gentle fighting, basically body slams himself. No one seems more surprised by this victory than Orlando, played by Ato Blankson-Wood as a shy jock who is only newly aware of his effect on women. When he imagines proposing to Rosalind (the hilarious “Will U Be My Bride”), four backup dancers rise from the stage to preen and body roll as he murmurs silkily into a microphone, doing his best (de) Boyz II Men:
Clearly, the emphasis in the production (directed by Woolery) is on adorability: Myung Hee Cho’s set is a storybook forest of three cheerful trees with gauzy, loofah-pouf foliage. The costume designer Emilio Sosa has dressed everyone in bright, poppy hues. A larger-than-life lioness and some yellow deer are the cuddly work of the gifted James Ortiz, who designed the rambunctious dinosaur for “The Skin of Our Teeth.”
“There’s no clock in the forest,” says Orlando, and, indeed, there’s nothing to do but picnic, participate in a weird courtship game in which Ganymede pretends to be Rosalind (who, of course, he actually is), and poke fun at the locals. Rosalind in disguise is the mean girl of Arden, self-lacerating and bitter about womanhood. Underneath her glittering comic technique, Jones seems complex and wounded, her voice catching hoarsely at such lyrics as “Even though your heart is breaking / Act like you’re alright.” In a musical full of goofballs, cartoons, and luchador contests, she’s a person staring, clear-eyed, at her options. What is this real, frightened woman doing here in Candyland?
Well, she’s in a Public Works production. This Public Theatre program, now a decade old, is an interlocking set of workshops and meetups that culminates in a musical at the Delacorte, performed by hundreds of amateur actors from all over the city, members of local performance groups (like those Bronx wrestlers), and a handful of Broadway stars. These shows, which are typically performed at the end of the Shakespeare in the Park season and have included “Twelfth Night” and “The Winter’s Tale,” involve plenty of homespun spectacle and little kids doing step-touch choreography. I worked on the first of these, “The Tempest,” in 2013, and, watching “As You Like It,” I was struck by the way the program fosters long-term engagement: some of the current ensemble members go back to the early days. The 2020 documentary “Under the Greenwood Tree” makes clear the pain of losing this production—first performed in 2017 and originally slated for a longer 2020 revival—to the COVID shutdown. It also suggests that Public Works doesn’t really need a big show. “We have community,” Christine Yvette Lewis, a longtime Public Works participant, says. “How could that be broken?”
Public Works has a signature aesthetic—the stage design is colorful, the storytelling straightforward, the mood buoyant and breezy and meant for a summer night. For those of us in the audience, this can be broken, or at least fractured. In the sometimes awkward case of “As You Like It,” a viewer has to ignore a certain amount of the text to embrace the Public Works spirit. The play is an end-of-the-Elizabethan-age work, full of wry contempt for its own pastoral form and rueful melancholy for a golden age already in sunset. Beneath its effortful bumptiousness (the British director Peter Brook once called it “a sort of advertisement for beer”) lie bleak thoughts: Eden isn’t an escape; poetry is “feigning”; lovers lie.
There’s a struggle between the source material’s cynicism and the production’s determination to be nice. Taub and Woolery’s ninety-five-minute adaptation is brisk, tuneful, and inclusive. As a lyricist, Taub, who also wrote the recent voting-rights musical “Suffs,” defaults to earnestness; her infectious melodies, which draw from hoedowns, Levantine wedding songs, and vintage cabaret, tend to rollick and repeat. Many of the lovers now are in same-sex couples: Touchstone falls for a hot local guy instead of for the daffy, rustic Audrey; the lovestruck shepherd Silvius is recast as Silvia (a clear-voiced Brianna Cabrera). Love is love is love—although Shakespeare’s plot does continue to require a certain amount of hetero panic about cross-dressing.
Taub herself plays Jaques, the skeptic who witnesses everything with a gimlet eye. At least, that’s what Shakespeare’s character does. Taub and Woolery have buffed away much of that negativity. Jaques’s Seven Ages of Man speech, which finishes with a nightmarish image of old age (“Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”), is turned into a heartfelt curtain-raiser:
Taub, dressed in patchwork overalls, sings while younger versions of Orlando and Rosalind parade past. It’s a celebration instead of a nihilistic view of life’s grim predictability. Even the couple’s senior selves, revealed in the “All the World’s a Stage” reprise, look like #retiredcouplegoals. What could they possibly be without? Maybe they’re sans stress?
The lines from Shakespeare that remain, though, keep fighting against the ice-cream sweetness of the production. In her wild truth-telling mood, Rosalind still says terrible things about women, and mismatched couples still wind up blithely marrying in the comedy’s four-way-wedding finale. Happy, happy, happy goes Woolery’s show, which crescendos into a thrilling crowd dance choreographed by Sonya Tayeh. But Taub and the juggernaut Jones have done too good a job of portraying Rosalind’s ambivalence for us to believe lyrics like “love makes magic real.” Taub is on firmer ground with, well, the ground itself. Her eyes light up when she sings about the Forest of Arden, particularly its theatre-like state as a place both unreal and real. Like Public Works—whose deeper project of community building is unconcerned with passing criticism—Arden is best suited to recovery and utopian thinking. It also looks, unsurprisingly, a lot like Central Park. ♦