A hoedown is under way in Central Park. I refer not to the countrified buskers who work their way round the area in all seasons but to the quartet setting up nightly now at the Delacorte, where the Public Theater is presenting Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The guitarist, bassist, fiddler and banjo player set a suitably rustic mood, matched by the frontier spirit of the production – with costumes and set redolent of 19th-century Americana. The wooden walls and sentry tower suggest that we have entered the precincts of Fort Shakespeare.
Daniel Sullivan, who has provided the Public with crowd-pleasing Shakespeare in recent seasons (The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night), does so again here. He has expertly marshalled all his forces, but his master of revels, apart from the bumptious Touchstone of Oliver Platt, is Steve Martin.
Martin, who has recorded two bluegrass albums with the Steep Canyon Rangers, has composed music in that roof-raising style for the players here. When the play proper began, and the musicians continued their pre-curtain performing, I worried that Shakespeare’s “country copulatives” would be drowned out by all the picking and slapping. But as night descended the music receded, returning only to enhance the mood or pick up the pace.
As usual for alfresco Shakespeare, few eye-opening textual perspectives emerge over the course of these nearly three hours, in which Rosalind and Orlando woo each other in the Forest of Arden. There is a hint of a lesbian reading early on, as Celia says of her relation with Rosalind, “Like Juno’s swans still we went coupled and inseparable.” But then Renee Elise Goldsberry, a very fine Celia, rejoins the ranks of more conventional interpreters.
Sullivan was correct to cast Lily Rabe as Rosalind. She made a strong impression as Portia two seasons back, and is certainly among the performers who make a vivid impression in Arden. Her striking profile conjures that of her mother, the late Jill Clayburgh, and during the sylvan love scenes she fills the stage with infectious wonder.
With its slight honk, however, Rabe’s speaking voice can inhibit the lines’ lyricism. As Orlando, David Furr did rather better with the poetry, and Andre Braugher, playing both Dukes, conveys presence. Best of all is the hangdog Jaques of Stephen Spinella. Melancholia never sounded so delicious.