Review: Finding Community in ‘As You Like It’

The Forest of Arden is where you head when the city won’t hold you. When laws are unjust, when custom constricts, when institutions squeeze and shrink you, here, at last, is space to breathe and to be. Manhattan razed its woodlands long ago, of course. (A lone stand of trees, in Inwood Hill Park, remains.) But on a summer night, in Central Park, squint a little and you can imagine a forest here — the refuge, the bounty, the hush.

You won’t have to squint hard at “As You Like It,” the shimmering Shakespeare adaptation at the Delacorte Theater, courtesy of Public Works. Adapted by Laurie Woolery, who directs, and the singer-songwriter Shaina Taub, who provides the music and lyrics, this easeful, intentional show bestows the pleasures typical of a Shakespeare comedy — adventure, disguise, multiple marriages, pentameter for days. And, in just 90 minutes, it unites its dozens of actors and its hundreds of audience members as citizens of the same joyful community.

Taub and Woolery’s adaptation retains the outline of the original, while shortening and tightening the talkier bits, making space for songs. Rosalind (Rebecca Naomi Jones), the daughter of the exiled Duke Senior (Darius De Haas), falls instantly for Orlando (Ato Blankson-Wood), the younger son of a dead nobleman. Threatened by the current Duke (Eric Pierre), they flee, with friends and servants, to the Forest of Arden, where Duke Senior has formed an alternate, more egalitarian court.

Taub has cast herself as Jacques, the emo philosopher, who opens the show with the limpid ballad, “All the World’s a Stage,” singing: “All the world’s a stage/And everybody’s in the show/Nobody’s a pro.”

These lyrics do a lot of work, work that transcends paraphrase. “As You Like It” is a production of Public Works, a division of the Public Theater that partners with community groups. So the song serves as a kind of pre-emptive apology, an acknowledgment of amateurism. Yet the lines function as an invitation, too, an inducement to imagine yourself as part of the show, to join in its creation. A big ask? Maybe. On a breeze-soothed evening, with the city quieted and the lights aglow, it won’t feel that way. And for those who blench and tremble at the thought of audience participation, take a breath. You don’t even have to sing along, though you may want to.

I first saw “As You Like It” during a short run at the Delacorte Theater in the summer of 2017, after the travel bans had been instituted, but before the widespread adoption of the Trump administration’s family separation policy. All scrolling felt like doom scrolling then; to open the morning paper was to start the day with some fresh horror. Things could — and did — get worse. I remember experiencing the show, profoundly and with some tears, as a temporary respite.

From left, Idania Quezada, Christopher M. Ramirez and Rebecca Naomi Jones in the Public Works adaptation of “As You Like It” at the Delacorte Theater.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

To revisit it now, when disaster seems less immediate, is to relax into the brisk pleasure of the work. Jones, an actress with a voice of steel and sweetness, like a knife baked into a birthday cake, is a dynamic Rosalind. And if you admired Blankson-Wood in “Slave Play,” you will enjoy his playful turn here, as in the exuberant R&B number, “Will U Be My Bride.” But the show’s success owes less to any individual performer than to the generous and sociable whole. Taub’s lyrics are simple, but it takes effort to write lines that feel effortless. The same goes for Sonya Tayeh’s fluid choreography, restaged by Billy Griffin and achievable for all kinds of bodies, and Woolery’s insouciant use of stage space.

The stage itself has an oddly flimsy set, by Myung Hee Cho, a turntable dotted with trees that don’t look a lot like trees. But Emilio Sosa’s costumes and Isabella Byrd’s lights provide happy splashes of color. James Ortiz designed the deer puppets; if they lack the emotional heft of the cow he designed for the current revival of “Into the Woods,” well, you can’t have everything. That “Into the Woods” revival is directed by Lear deBessonet, who inaugurated Public Works, which Woolery now leads. Small wonder then, but wonder all the same, that the two most joyous shows in New York right now, the two most engaged with questions of community and duty and care, have this shared maternity.

If “As You Like It” succeeds as entertainment — and it does, fluently, enough to make you wonder if Shakespeare in the Park should stick to comedies and musicals and maybe the occasional romance — it articulates and answers graver concerns. There is a persistent fear in American politics that to grant freedom is to invite anarchy. “As You Like It” offers another possibility. There is no rule of law in the Forest of Arden. But rather than descend into riot, its inhabitants practice mutual aid. They live in harmony, figuratively and — when De Haas swoops over and around the melody — literally.

This confirms Woolery and Taub’s adaptation as a kind of thought experiment: What might happen if a community were free to determine its own best principles and practices? Because “As You Like It” swells its cast with the members of partner organizations — Domestic Workers United, Military Resilience Foundation and Children’s Aid, among them — the show is also proof of concept. There is hierarchy here, of course. The direction is by Woolery alone and the folks with Equity cards occupy the prime roles. (To put the lie to Taub’s lyrics, somebody’s a pro.)

But if the theater were really made welcoming and accessible to all, this is what it might manifest — a stage bursting with performers diverse in age, race, size, habit and circumstance, an audience distributed across a similar spectrum. “As You Like It” offers that rare thing — a New York theater that looks like the city itself and feels like a promise of what the city, at its best, could be.

What a feat that is. And what a gift. So go ahead. Wait in line and then walk to the theater through the canopy of trees. Shelter here awhile.

As You Like It
Through Sept. 11 at the Delacorte Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

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