Entertainment » Theatre

As You Like It

by Daniel Neiden
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Saturday Sep 9, 2017
As You Like It

In 1954, Joseph Papp's big idea, initially chartered as "The Shakespeare workshop," blossomed during his tenure into The New York Shakespeare Festival, and then matured even further into what we all know now, 63 years later, as The Public Theater.

And public it is; coming poetically full circle at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, where The Public's "most important year-round program," Public Works, recently presented a musicalized "As You Like It." It is a production as conceptually complex as a Papp "workshop," but bursting with an immense, sparkling company of citizen-performers who clowned, danced, Phoebe'd (I'll explain), puppeted, and wrestled their way into our hearts with a cast of... wait, don't take my word for it, check out this part of the press release:

"Two hundred community members and professional actors perform together on the Delacorte stage in this immersive dreamlike tale of faithful friends, feuding families, and lovers in disguise. Forced from their homes, Orlando, Duke Senior, his daughter Rosalind, and niece Celia, escape to the forest of Arden, a fantastical place of transformation, where all are welcome and embraced. Lost amidst the trees, the refugees find community and acceptance under the stars in this magical story of chance encounters and self-discovery."

Two hundred people on stage!? And just a handful being professional actors? Yet, quality still topped quantity in director-Linda Woolery's beautiful musical adaptation, with unabashedly joyful songs by New York's seasonal creative unicorn, Shaina Taub.

This was my second foray into the park to catch "As You Like It," as it was rained out two nights before. The theater was full, with every third audience member checking their weather apps and the ever-intrepid Oskar Eustis standing soaked, center stage amongst the squeegee brigade (this is a gifted man who thanks crew members by name in the midst of his audience repartee), readying the stage for "any window of opportunity."

We sat as a huddled mass, yearning to be free-ly entertained and, after a morale-lifting concert by Taub to vamp us through the rain delay, we, the faithful and damp 1,800 souls, got to see exactly... ten minutes of the show (one song/one scene) before the skies really opened up and home we went.

It bears reporting that two nights later, I met several truly loyal theater fans, bright eyed New Yorkers who came back to wait in line and get tickets, all over again. In speaking to many of them of this unique second chance, I discovered that the production's theme song "All the World's a Stage" stayed in all of our heads for the past two days. Keep your ears peeled for the soundtrack. One of Taub's marvelous lyrics that channels "Jacques' melancholy Seven Stages of Man, offers,

Then We Get Bigger
And Think Before We Play,
Give Each Other Stage Fright
And Worry What The Critics Have To Say.

This production need not worry about critics, as it hit every note of painted forest fantasy, royal hubris, and with safe space reserved for remarkable movement and dances by the stunning Sonya Tayeh, who you know from her many choreographically pushed envelopes on "Dancing With The Stars," but will surely see more of on the New York boards. As promised, one of the musical highlights of the show that registered high delight with all, used the character name "Phoebe" as a verb to show the shifting sexual politics in Shakespeare's story.

Love Injuries Aren't The Kind You Can See Bleed
If Only You Knew What It's Like To Be Phoebe'd!

And You, Why Do You Want Her So?
She Phoebes You
She Phoebes You
She Phoebes You
Don't You Let Her Phoebe You
You Better Lose The Rose-Colored Lens You See Her Through
Don't You Let Her Phoebe You.

What you missed, but will get your second chance to see, if you jump at the chance to see the next Public works production that comes into your orbit: Darius de Haas (as Duke Senior) brought people half out of their seats, the way he always does, with his soaring vocals; while Joel Perez convulsed them with his comic frisk as Touchstone. There was an actual wrestling ring (real wrestlers included!); remarkable puppets: a stirring dabka and zaffa dance encore: yes, all in one show.

The Public is truly our country's "National Theatre," with all the outreach, programming, and vision one would expect to carry a title like that. From the cutting edge to the commercial, educational to experimental; homegrown to international, obscure to sequel -- The Public mounts the shows we always brag that we saw.

"As You Like It" ran through September 5 at The Delacorte Theatre, Central Park West at 81st Street. For information on upcoming shows, visit https://www.publictheater.org/Programs--Events/Public-Works/

Daniel Neiden is a writer and composer who develops socially conscious theater projects.

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