“All the world’s a stage, and everybody’s in the show, nobody’s a pro,” Shaina Taub, dressed in patch-quilt overalls, sings in the first moments of her spirited and enchanting musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy, playing for free in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater through September 11th.
Now, those who are acquainted with the monologue in “As You Like It” whose opening line is “All the world’s a stage’ – one of the most famous monologues in all of Shakespeare’s plays — surely know that the next line is “And all the men and women merely players. “ (The most devout Shakespeareans might also know that it doesn’t open the play; it’s not recited until Act 2, Scene 7.)
But Taub’s opening clues us into two of the things I love most about what she and director/co-adapter Laurie Woolery have done in this vibrantly-designed, wonderfully acted remounting of a production originally presented at the Delacorte in 2017.
The song is part of a lovely and impressively eclectic score by Taub, who gained acclaim earlier this year as the star, librettist, and composer of “Suffs.”
And the lyric “everybody’s in the show, nobody’s a pro” is not random. “As You Like It” is the latest production of the Public Theater’s ambitious Public Works Program, which since a production of The Tempest in 2013 has created musical adaptations that mix a cast of professional actors with some hundreds of New Yorkers from community groups from all five boroughs, When I saw Taub’s adaptation of “Twelfth Night” for Public Works in 2016, I called it a variety show and a fun party. But Public Works has matured since the time when their run was just for the long Labor Day weekend. These crowd-pleasers are now given full runs as the second offering in the Delacorte summer season. The cast members may still be having a party, but “As You Like It” is a seamless 90 minutes that offers many of the pleasures of the best professional theater.
One plot change
The busy plot is not high up on that list for me – an assessment with which the Public Theater might be tacitly agreeing, since its synopsis in the playbill is so brief it goes into almost no detail about what actually happens. Let’s just say that most of the characters start out in the Court of Duke Frederick, and wind up in the forest of Arden, where sibling rivalries are healed, and love thrives. There are a quartet of love stories. The central one is between Orlando (Ato Blankson-Wood) and Rosalind (Rebecca Naomi Jones.) Rosalind has disguised herself as a man, called Ganymede, and tests Orlando’s love for her by pretending to play-act as Rosalind so that Orlando can practice his skills in wooing.
Rosalind’s motivation for keeping her identity secret from the man she loves – as well as the ease with which other characters change and reconcile – might not stand up to modern-day scrutiny. But it’s a Shakespearean comedy — or, as Jaques (Taub) says on stage: “Spoiler alert: It’s a happy ending.” All four couples get married.
Taub and Woolery depart from Shakespeare’s version in two of the four couples, who are having same-sex weddings. Touchstone the court fool has won over a shepherd Andy (not Audrey in the original), and Sylvia (not Sylvius) is a shepherdess who gets Phoebe as her bride (although Phoebe is actually only in love with Ganymede, the man Rosalind pretended to be — the complications of which are…unexplored.)
Yes, Taub’s lyrics only occasionally borrowed from the Bard, but the scenes in-between left enough intact, with some judicious trimming, to allow first-rate actors such as Darius de Haas Ato Blankson-Wood, and Rebecca Naomi Jones to communicate much of the sense and sensibility in his rhythms and rhymes.
Use of community members
The actor who portrays Duke Frederick, Eric Pierre, is a pastor and schoolteacher in the Bronx, who got his Equity card as a result of this performance. Cast members belong to nine community organizations, such as the Bronx Wrestling Federation (a terrific scene in which Orlando proves his mettle), Domestic Workers United, and the formerly incarcerated from The Fortune Society — which, in a wonderful closing of a circle, is named after John Herbert’s play about incarceration, “Fortune and Men’s Eyes.” – the title comes from a Shakespeare sonnet.)
Taub’s seventeen songs, plus reprises, feature many stand-out numbers:
-a catchy Calypso-like “In Arden”
-a country song, “Oh Deer,”
-a pop song “Will U Be My Bride,” that’s hilariously pitch perfect Boy Band, complete with the backup “De Boys” dressed in white tuxes (“Girl, I wanna see your name written next to mine/But first I have to think of the perfect rhyme” – and then elaborately comparing his love to a hamburger) This is reprised as “Will U Be My Groom,” a duet between a different couple.
-“The Lion and the Snake,” which feels like a modest nod to Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.”
-“Still I Will Love,” which starts as a traditional-sounding wedding song that whips up into a rousing gospel shout.
And then there’s “Under the Greenwood Tree,” which is a sweet, sweet melody – as is “All The World’s a Stage.” Take a listen, from a 2017 recording by Taub:
Arden was an actual forest in Shakespeare’s time, but, thanks to its use in “As You Like It,” it has come to symbolize a place of refuge, and freedom, and awe. And everything about the performance I saw at the Delacorte Theater – including the animal puppets (designed by the same puppet designer of Milky White in Into The Woods) the friendly audience, the vendor who offered me a bottle of water at a discount, the weather – made me feel as if Arden had been resurrected in New York City, and not just symbolically.
As You Like It
Delacorte Theater in Central Park through September 11
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Adapted by Shaina Taub & Laurie Woolery from William Shakespeare
Music & Lyrics by Shaina Taub
Original Choreography by Sonya Tayeh
Choreography Restaging & Additional Choreography by Billy Griffin
Directed by Laurie Woolery
Scenic design by Myung Hee Cho, costume design by Emilio Sosa, lighting design by Isabella Byrd, sound design by Sun Hee Kil, hair, wig and makeup design by Leah J. Loukas, puppet design by James Ortiz
Principal cast: Shaina Taub as Jaques, Ato Blankson-Wood as Orlando, Rebecca Naomi Jones as Rosalind, Renrick Palmer as Oliver, Idania Quezada as Celia, Christopher M. Ramirez as Touchstone, Erik Pierre as Duke Frederick, Darius de Haas as Duke Senior, Brianna Cabrera as Sylvia, Bianca Edwards as Phoebe, Jonathan Jordan as Andy
Damion Allen (William), Tristan André (De Boys/Attendant), Amar Atkins (Understudy Duke Senior/Duke Frederick), Lori Brown-Niang (Agent/Puppet-deer), Sean-Michael Bruno (Understudy De Boys), Danyel Fulton (Understudy Rosalind/Phoebe), Emily Gardner Xu Hall (Jaques Standby), Pierre Harmony Graves (De Boys/Arden Dancer/Young Orlando Dad), Trevor McGhie (Understudy Orlando/Oliver), Mike Millán (Understudy Touchstone/Andy), Bobby Moody (De Boys/Arden Dancer), Edwin Rivera (De Boys/Attendant), Kevin Tate (Understudy De Boys Dancer), Claudia Yanez (Understudy Celia/Silvia).
Members of the Brownsville Recreation Center, Casita Mria Center for Arts and Education, Center for Famsily Life in Sunset Park, Children’s Aid, Domestic Workers United, Dreamyard, The Fortune Society, Military Resilience Foundation, Bronx Wrestling Federation