What It Is
Shakespeare in the Park, presented by The Public Theater, is a veritable New York institution, providing free theater of the highest caliber every summer at the beautiful open-air Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Rain or shine, hundreds of locals and tourists alike line up every morning for the chance to see immortal classics given new life and new context.
But a more recent addition to The Public’s programming at the Delacorte has been the successful “Public Works” series, which combines the world-renowned institution with community engagement and ardent support of local artists into a transcendent form of community theater. As the program explains: “Blending elements of song, mass spectacle, and dance, community masques seek to both tell the story at hand, and also to serve as an occasion for larger civic celebration.”
AS YOU LIKE IT, which ran September 1st – 5th as the culmination of the 2017 Public Works program, achieved these lofty goals and more. It truly captured, from the individual to the communal level, everything that makes theater an important and wonderful art form.
Why It’s Good
In a city famed for its Broadway stages, there is nothing in New York quite like the Delacorte Theater. The 1,800 seat open-air theater, nestled near the 81st Street entrance on the west side of Central Park, is ringed by towering trees and outfitted with much of the spectacle you could ask for in a Broadway house. On a late summer evening, with a gentle breeze in the air and the sun setting like great house lights of the world going out, there is no better place to appreciate the ritual, communal origins of theater.
The set you’re greeted with is as colorful as it is mysterious, with hidden depths waiting to unfold from within the patchwork tapestry. The designs throughout, from the scenic design (David Rockwell) to the hundreds of costumes (Andrea Hood), contain an abundance of detail that serves this faithful retelling with clarity and style.
The production of AS YOU LIKE IT, adapted as a musical by Shaina Taub and director Laurie Woolery, isn’t your usual Shakespeare. Moving seamlessly between contemporary music and lyrics (Shaina Taub) and the original poetry (William Shakespeare) the production is able to bring along the entire audience, regardless of their familiarity with iambic pentameter. The Bard still managed to keep the biggest laughs for himself, but Taub deserves ample credit for better setting up the jokes for a community crowd.
Taub herself plays the philosophical Jacques, framing the story with a musical rendition of the character’s famous “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players…” soliloquy. From the outset, it seems this production is speaking to every level of Jacques’ rumination: the community here is on the stage, the world stage itself seems like fiction, and we all may have a role to play. Taub’s take on Jacques, especially when playing off of Darius de Haas‘s spellbinding Duke Senior, highlights an existential question at the heart of the play — can humanity reconcile its intellectual core with its animal nature?
Meanwhile, the love stories that swirl into the classic quad-wedding finale are brought to life with earnest charm and delight, lead by Rebecca Naomi Jones (Rosalind) and Ato Blankson-Wood (Orlando). When banishèd Rosalind flees into the Forest of Arden with her cousin Celia (Idania Quezada) and the fool Touchstone (Joel Perez) they find a new way of looking at things, and eventually find their soul mates outside the city walls. Perez is a delight with his fish-out-of-water turnaround story pursuing the country boy Andy (Troy Anthony), and the pastoral side-story of Silvia (Ariel Mapp) and Phoebe (Mayelyn Perdomo) has never been more fun, especially given the original musical number that they both absolutely slay.
But the real show-stealer was the community. The scores of “Ardenites / Court Citizens”, the hilarious Duke Frederick (Antoine Jones) and his posse, the many real people forming the ensemble, and especially the cameo groups, brought the whole production to a completely new level.
Each group was integrated into the plot in a sensible way. The Act I wrestling scene brought in the Bronx Wrestling Federation, complete with lucha libre characters and jumps from the rope; and the mega-wedding at the end incorporated The Sing Harlem Choir and the Freedom Dabka Group into the festivities. But probably the single most incredible moment of the evening was led by the Harambee Dance Company as they introduced us to the glorious Forest of Arden, the entire cast slowly pouring onto the stage with pulsing drums and a song for a peaceful new world. Arden, as a multicultural utopian ideal for the weary and dispossessed, beckoned to the whole audience, and the world, to join in on the beat.
It was truly a night that made you believe, if everyone could just have seen what you had, all of humanity’s problems could be solved with love.
All that said: Public Works is an important model for engagement in and support of theater. Under the trees of Central Park, sitting among all our neighbors, it was exactly as magical and wonderful as theater can be. We at TiG so look forward to the long future of this program.
– C. F.