“All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” says Jaques in Shakespeare's As You Like It. Those usually cynical words will ring with optimism in September at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. As it has for the last four years, the Public Theater follows its Shakespeare in the Park summer season with a blowout Public Works musical: a spirited mass-participation pageant with a hybrid ensemble of professional actors and community-cast performers. Broadway stars like Darius de Haas and Joel Perez lead a gigantic company of citizen-artists from every borough, drawn from partner groups like Fortune Society, DreamYard and Military Resilience Project. Shakespeare's language remains, but the action is cut to a speedy 90 minutes and sprinkled with jazzy original songs by Shaina Taub. “We'll get you in and out,” promises Taub. This world turns quickly.
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Taub and director Laurie Woolery say As You Like It was an obvious choice for a Public Works adaptation. It’s a love-drunk comedy about an exiled duke who lives with his retinue in the woods, and for New Yorkers, Central Park is like the play’s Forest of Arden: nature all groomed and pleasing, full of tidy glens and picnics with cute shepherds. Appropriate for a play that deals with the progress of generations, the company of this As You Like It ranges in age from 3 to 90. And the production finds deeper and more contemporary resonances, too. The play's four weddings will now reflect a wider spectrum of gender relationships, for instance. “And for me,” says Woolery says, “It has become about the immigrant plot line.” Where Shakespeare’s banished Duke has few followers, here he lives among a huge number of fellow outcasts. The happy ending thus means an entire refugee community can come in from the cold.
Although Woolery is now the Director of Public Works, As You Like It is her first piece at the Delacorte. Taub was in last year's Twelfth Night, for which she not only wrote all the songs but also played a merry Feste, scampering in and out of the hullaballoo. This time she'll be playing Jaques—there's a lot of gender bending in this version—and commenting wryly on the action. “We all have our Jaques moments,” she says. “Sometimes even Public Works can't melt her cold, cold heart!” Taub has managed to write her second Shakespeare musical in around six months, which is a blistering pace. “It's been a crash course,” Taub admits. “It's an unofficial degree program in which you collaborate with Shakespeare.” But when she talks about Twelfth Night, it's clear why she's back. “At the final curtain call, we do our big bow sequence, and it's all 200 people onstage, together, for the only time in the show,” she recalls. “I was bowing next to the kids and they just jumped up into my arms. I felt such joy to be in the center of that.”
That sense of an exultant storm of humanity is always part of the Public Works magic. Every year, the creators crowd still more bodies onto the Delacorte stage: Groups from around the city “cameo” in splashy production numbers, which this year features the Levantine folk dancers Freedom Dabka Group, the Harambee Dance Company and the 40-person youth choir Sing Harlem. Woolery sounds nearly giddy when she talks about working the Bronx Wrestling Federation into the action. In Shakespeare’s original, Orlando (Ato Blankson-Wood) catches the eye of Rosalind (Rebecca Naomi Jones) at a wrestling match; in Woolery and Taub’s version, it’s a lucha libre contest, complete with Mexican wrestling masks and body slams. “It’s one of the cameo groups that makes the most sense,” Woolery says with delight. “Shakespeare would definitely have used luchadores if he’d had them.”
As You Like It is at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park Fri 1–Tue 5 at 8pm. Admission is free; for details, see our guide to how to get Shakespeare in the Park tickets.