It is appropriate that the Public Theater’s eventful Shakespearean summer at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater ends with a show that emphatically celebrates black and LGBT people proudly taking their place at the center of wider communities, with both loudly proclaiming the enduring good sense of love of all kinds and civic pride.
The Public, as its artistic director Oskar Eustis has said, stands for the enrichment of art and culture. When the contretemps over the Public’s Julius Caesar unfolded earlier in the summer, due to the bloody killing of a Trump-like Caesar, Eustis and the theater stood firm despite the boneheaded protesters it suddenly had to deal with.
It is no accident that the stage, at the beginning of this joyous adaptation written by Shaina Taub and director Laurie Woolery, is a rainbow color, as are the three shaggy trees, last scene in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Without a word being uttered or note being sung, the As You Like It Taub and Woolery have crafted is one that rings with not just LGBT Pride, but a deeper multi-cultural one.
This is also a Public Works production, which the Public has been mounting for the last five years, mixing professional actors with community volunteer performers from the Casita Maria Center For Arts and Education, Children’s Aid Society, Domestic Workers United, the Brooklyn’s Brownsville Recreation Center and Center For Family Life in Sunset Park, the Bronx’s DreamYard Project, Queen’s Fortune Society and the city-wide Military Resilience Project.
There are even three wrestlers from the Bronx Wrestling Federation, drummers from the Harambee Dance Company, singers from the Sing Harlem Choir, and dancers from the Freedom Dabka Group.
If that sounds like a lot of organizations, you would be right, and you would also be right to expect a lot of performers on stage. It is jostlingly crowded at times. Shakespeare’s original text peppers this production, but the main component of it is song and dance.
The music, lyrics and vocal arrangements are by Shaina Taub, who—the night I saw it—was also doing quadruple duty singing the part of Rosalind as actress Rebecca Naomi Jones had voice health issues (she gamely lip-synched).
Taub also played the mournful and wry Jaques, and is very much the understated star and unseen motor of the evening.
The central romance of Shakespeare’s play, between Rosalind and Orlando (Ato Blankson-Wood) is present but displaced; this As You Like It has been transformed into a same-sex love celebration. Phoebe, a shepherdess, and Silvius, a shepherd, have become Phoebe and Silvia, a will-they-won’t-they love pairing played by Mayelyn Perdomo and Ariel Mapp. A lovely song, which is later repeated and reworded, refers to Silvia’s confusion at being “Phoebe’d,” which roughly translates to being bewitched and abused by a crush.
Phoebe falls for Rosalind, of course (by now dressing as Ganymede, a young man), and so this tricky romantic tangle has to be resolved—in an updated all-female context—with Rosalind as a man professing she does not like women. Think about that, and more congratulations for Taub at attempting lyrics to convey it all.
Another same-sex pairing comes with Touchstone (Joel Perez) and Andy (Troy Anthony). The former seems less the court jester of the original and more a slightly villainous rich kid. The latter is transformed from Shakespeare’s country girl Audrey, and makes Touchstone momentarily jealous by doing the Do-si-do with William (Matthew Vazquez). It’s the same love triangle in As You Like It, here refashioned with all-male participants.
All of this rewriting, and the singing and excellent dancing—particularly of the DeBoys Dancers, who pop up to provide boy band visuals at insanely fun moments—makes Shakespeare’s text a little redundant. Rosalind and Orlando seem barely in conflict, or the victim of that vexing a misunderstanding. It is unclear who is testing who, and why. Taub and Woolery cleverly translate Rosalind’s cross-dressing into a more modern context.
My pal, who had never read the play, walked towards the subway querying, as well as some of our fellow attendees, what the play had left in, out, and rewritten.
He queried parts of the happy ending, because some of the conflicts being resolved (Duke Frederick’s beef with brother Duke Senior, played by Antoine Jones and Darius De Haas respectively) are not fully sketched enough to scan as a dramatic knot.
If you come for listening to a faithful rendition of Shakespeare, you will be disappointed. The LGBT romances and relationships are not deeply wrought, but they are center stage and their couplings are warmly applauded. Taub and Woolery playfully make their point.
The Forest of Arden, as Shakespeare and Taub and Woolery all intend, becomes a setting for all kinds of positive transformation. It is there, not only that the true lovers find themselves, but where the community, and values of community, works best—and with four very different weddings staged in the rousing denouement.
This might all sound too happy-clappy, hippy-dippy for its own good, but Taub and Woolery have transformed As You Like It into a celebration of community, difference, and diversity. Right now, that is very welcome.
The final performance of As You Like It is on September 5 at 8pm at the Delacorte Theater, Central Park, NYC. Details here.