Celebrating 50 years in Central Park, The Public Theater is shaking things up at the Delacorte. Unlike in recent years, where two Shakespearean works played in repertory, this year the company is pairing a solo run of "As You Like It" with Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods" later in the summer. But this production is more than strong enough to hold its own, with a stellar cast led by director Daniel Sullivan and a truly breathtaking set by John Lee Beatty that magically transforms from towering fortress to enchanted forest.
Lily Rabe showcases the cat-and-mouse gamesmanship undertaken by the love-struck heroine, Rosalind. Her sidekick Celia (Renee Elise Goldsberry) is an overworked wingwoman who just barely keeps her tongue. Oliver Platt avoids the trap of acting too outlandish, and his Touchstone is a knowing fool. David Furr's Orlando is best when set against the firebrand Rosalind, but he's surprisingly tender when he strives to repay a lifetime's servitude to his ailing, elderly aid. Two of the best performances come from smaller parts, the penetratingly cynical Jaques (Stephen Spinella) and the scornful Phoebe (Susannah Flood), a first-edition mean girl. Throughout, a roving bluegrass band underscores the plot's exultations and setbacks with mood-perfect music by Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin).
At our performance, there was a noticeable amount of children in attendance who raptly and ably followed the twists and turns of the plot. Shakespeare, when it's done well, should always be this accessible and simple -- but make no mistake, the mastery behind the scenes here is palpable, it's just tucked in cleanly at the seams so that all that's left is exactly "As You Like It."