Once again, the Public Theater presents an unsatisfying Shakespeare in the Park; once again, I am powerless to resist. In As You Like It, lovers, courtiers, and fools retire to the Forest of Arden, where they encounter “country copulatives,” dicey plotting, and gags that stopped being topical in the sixteenth century. Even more than its recent predecessors at the Delacorte, Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night, As You Like It demands a treatment so entrancing it will make you overlook the play’s weird, unworkable stretches: either a cavalcade of delights or nothing.
This is what director Mark Lamos cannot give it, at least not for very long. Sometimes his confused production adopts a fairy-tale, fun-for-the-family vibe, as when shepherds tote around stuffed lambs that bleat at appropriately comical moments. Yet the stage has been designed to resemble a giant cosmic map: clever but not so very fairy-tale. The miscast Richard Thomas tries very hard to make the jester Touchstone engaging; as the melancholy Jaques, Brian Bedford doesn’t appear to try hard enough, taking a laconic approach that unhelpfully recalls Stan Laurel. Surmounting all the commotion are the soldiers of the usurping Duke, who prance around in helmets crowned with what appear to be black feather-dusters.
Yet there I was, walking out of the Delacorte with a silly grin on my face. Though not as often or as reliably as it should, the show offers genuine pleasure. A great deal of it flows from Lynn Collins and her charming, forceful Rosalind. As Portia in a recent film of The Merchant of Venice, she showed her intelligence and poise. Here she reveals a rich voice and a knack for comedy. See, in her first brush with Orlando, how nimbly she mixes girlish hesitation and a very grown-up desire. When the action shifts to Arden, and Rosalind shifts into pants, Collins achieves the neat trick of being the most bewitching woman and the most charismatic man onstage: Dietrich with a silly streak. Next to her, poor James Waterston, like his character, Orlando, doesn’t stand a chance. As so often happens in the park, the evening’s delight also flows from the idyllic setting. “This is the Forest of Arden,” says Rosalind in a hushed voice, gazing offstage at the green expanse of Central Park behind her. With night falling, and lights hitting the trees just so, it’s the best special effect in town. Later, Silvius (an exceptional Michael Esper) will stand in the open air and propound upon love. “It is to be all made of sighs and tears,” he says. “It is to be all made of fantasy, / All made of passion and all made of wishes.” At its best moments, the show creates a pastoral ecstasy.
That we derive such enjoyment from a production so flawed reveals how the Delacorte’s critics sometimes get it wrong. A recent article on Slate—choosing an odd time to turn highbrow—derided Shakespeare in the Park as “a benediction for intellectual daytrippers,” implicitly mocking the people who feel it’s “merely enough to be there.” Certainly every mounting of Shakespeare should be an intellectual triumph; certainly it is not enough just to sit there. But between those extremes lies a great deal of terrain, where a lively embrace of the richest plays in the language can occur.
Seeing Shakespeare in the elements reminds us that his appeal is not just intellectual but sensual and visceral; enjoying him with people who see it for free underscores that theater isn’t private, but uniquely social and even civic. To hear words this lovely, as part of a tradition so vital, amid a cloud of fireflies: It’s a pinched idea of cultural life that doesn’t treasure the chance. Even when the show’s a little off, the Delacorte on a warm summer night remains that rare place in which, as in the Forest of Arden, people may “fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world.”