Bloomberg News

Steve Martin Serenades Bard in the Park: Jeremy Gerard

June 23, 2012

"As You Like It"

Donna Lynn Champlin and Oliver Platt as Audrey and Jacques in "As You Like It." The play will be followed by a revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's "Into the Woods." Photographer: Joan Marcus/Public Theater via Bloomberg

Rifle-toting rangers man the ramparts of a stockade whose high walls briefly block out Central Park.

An unobstructed view from all 2,000 seats in the Delacorte Theater has been a hallmark of summer in New York since 1962.

True to form, the walls soon part to reveal the Forest of Arden, Manhattan-style, in Daniel Sullivan’s bluegrass-suffused romp through “As You Like It.”

The comedy is Shakespeare’s, the music is courtesy of comedian-novelist-art collector Steve Martin, whose gifts include composing for a Nashville-quality onstage band led by primo banjoist Tony Trischka.

You’ve probably never heard “Under the Greenwood Tree” played with such ingratiating hillbilly verve.

This is a quintessentially American “As You Like It,” set by John Lee Beatty on the frontier and dressed (by the great Jane Greenwood) country-western style.

It’s rough-hewn (in contrast to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s stark, sensual version seen last summer at the Park Avenue Armory).

Lily Rabe (Portia in Sullivan’s excellent “Merchant of Venice” two years ago) plays Rosalind, daughter of a deposed duke and pursued from bower to glen by the seriously lovestruck Orlando (David Furr). His mash notes compete with leaves to shade the Arden turf.

Comically Complicated

Rabe is “not for all markets,” as Rosalind herself warns the rustic Phoebe. She is better suited to the no-nonsense Portia than the comically complicated Rosalind (who, like Portia, spends part of the play in male drag). She and Furr attack Shakespeare’s lyrical prose with clarity but not enough passion.

Sullivan has cast familiar actors in unfamiliar roles, happily in several cases: Fleshy Oliver Platt underplays the jester Touchstone with louche sincerity. Stephen Spinella is wonderfully dry as the buzzkill philosopher Jaques. Renee Elise Goldsberry is winning, after a slow start, as Rosalind’s faithful cousin Celia.

The most seriously miscast is Andre Braugher, gruffly stolid in two roles, as the usurping and usurped dukes.

A balmy summer evening under a canopy of stars erases a lot of quibbles. This “As You Like It,” like so many before it, reminds us of the promise made good 50 years ago, after two pugilistic Shakespeare lovers -- Public Theater founder Joseph Papp and parks commissioner Robert Moses -- did battle over the right to offer free theater in Central Park.

Papp triumphed; we won.

Through June 30 at the Delacorte Theater; enter Central Park at E.79th St. or W. 81st St. Information: +1-212-539-8750; http://www.shakespeareinthepark.org. Rating: ****

‘Bad, Better’

The Amoralists push the envelope with plays about contemporary issues -- urban squatters, sexual identity -- and performances that are naked (in every sense) and in your face. But the group’s latest, Derek Ahonen’s “The Bad and the Better” is quite a slog.

As the name suggests, it’s a noir-style melodrama set downtown and on Long Island.

Cops are on the take, politicians are liars, loyalty is a fluid concept and nothing is clear until it’s all explained in the last few minutes.

Sort of like “The Maltese Falcon,” only a lot longer and minus Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor.

It’s almost worth seeing for Alfred Schatz’s rambling set, which squeezes an East Village bar, an apartment and various locales onto a handkerchief-size stage, and Natalie Robin’s equally deft, moody lighting.

Through July 21 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-279-4200; http://www.ticketcentral.com Rating: **


What the Stars Mean:
****        Do Not Miss
***         Excellent
**          Good
*           So-So
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Craig Seligman on movies and Zinta Lundborg on weekend.

To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at jgerard2@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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