Backwoods 1800s America proves an unlikely, but ideal setting for Shakespeare’s As You Like It in director Daniel Sullivan’s enormously entertaining Delacorte production that mixes dexterous wordplay with rowdy comedy.
The audience enters to the sight of the exterior of a tall wooden fort with a rifle-toting lookout standing guard. Below is a boisterous bluegrass band plucking and bowing out twangy tunes by Steve Martin. Foreshadowing the wresting aspect of the plot, a poster tacked to a tree displays a hulking fellow grappling with a bear.
The complicated story of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy involves family rivalries, banished lovers, highbrow banter, lowbrow antics and the obligatory leading lady who, for some reason or another, must disguise herself as male in order to win her mate.
That obligation is met triumphantly by Lily Rabe, intoxicatingly masterful at verbal wit and subtle reaction, who, as Rosalind, ventures into the forest with her cousin, Celia (a perky and game Renee Elise Goldsberry) in search of her beloved Orlando (nobly played by David Furr), who she first laid eyes on while watching him getting pummeled in a wrestling match.
Although Orlando’s match against the brawny brute Charles (a terrific Brendan Averett) is choreographed by Rick Sordelet with all the fake-violent humor of a good WWE event, I do have to quibble who whoever made the decision to have Orlando win by kicking his opponent in the groin several times, as the move is traditionally considered a villainous cheap shot; especially after Charles is shown to be the kind of gentlemanly sportsman who chooses not inflict further punishment on his opponent when he is defenselessly battered.
Andre Braugher ably doubles as a ruthless duke and the kindly brother he has banished into the forest; thick with trees that set designer John Lee Beatty cleverly provides with hiding places. When Stephen Spinella, hilariously dour as the melancholy Jacques (pronounced “Jake” for this version), beautifully recites the “All the world’s a stage…” speech, it’s done as a campfire story on a peaceful evening.
Oliver Platt is suitably wry as the jester, Touchstone, and Donna Lynne Champlin, who gets a chance to demonstrate her clogging skills, is very funny as the dumb but lusty goatherd who captures his attention. Beloved character actor MacIntyre Dixon is touching as an elderly servant and Will Rogers and Susannah Flood add humor as a love-struck shepherd and the snarky shepherdess who continually rejects him.
With catchy tunes throughout and a hoedown finale, this As You Like It is a merry romp from start to finish.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: David Furr, Renee Elise Goldsberry and Lily Rabe; Bottom: Jordan Tice and Stephen Spinella.