In “As You Like It,” the Forest of Arden is more than just a place of exile from the corrupt court, the world of “painted pomp.” It is a metaphor for the ideal of humanity at its best, divorced from strictures and conventions and able to see the “good in everything.” Still, both the court and the forest are real, and the conflict between the two and the balancing of political realities and humanist impulses provide the dramatic center of the play.
“As You Like It” is also as sparkling and romantic a comedy as Shakespeare wrote, deriving its humor from the same city-versus-country dynamic that provides its philosophical center. At its essence, it is a love story. Rosalind, daughter of the banished Duke Senior, is herself cast out by her father’s usurping brother, Frederick. Unable to live without Rosalind, her cousin Celia runs away as well, while Rosalind disguises herself as a boy, Ganymede, so she can hide among Duke Senior’s men in Arden.
Orlando has likewise been banished, but not before meeting and becoming obsessed with Rosalind. When he arrives in the forest, Ganymede offers himself as a stand-in for Rosalind to teach Orlando how to woo.
There are other love stories played out as well, as the clown Touchstone, who has decamped with Celia and Rosalind, woos the shepherdess Audrey, and Silvius has his heart broken by Phoebe, who has fallen in love with Ganymede. As a piquant commentator throughout, one of the Duke Senior’s men, Jacques, muses on the human condition. And so it goes to the inevitable happy ending, where man and nature restore their proper balance, all set to music with an excellent bluegrass score by Steve Martin.
I distinctly remember seeing six other productions of “As You Like It” over the years, yet I have never seen the play so beautifully rendered or with such a deep understanding of its themes. For that, all credit goes to director Daniel Sullivan, who creates the two worlds and the characters with such precision and honesty that even a play as familiar and predictable as this seems fresh. His ability to draw fully realized performances from his actors is consistently superb, but in this production, he also achieves something that eludes many directors of Shakespeare. It’s fully believable that all these characters inhabit the same world, and the emotions that result from putting them all together make sense. It is all the funnier for feeling real. (Sullivan had the same success with “Twelfth Night,” which ranks as one of my favorite productions of that play.)
The cast is outstanding. Lily Rabe as Rosalind/ Ganymeade is alive with romance and intelligence. Renee Elise Goldsberry is a perfect counterpoint as the more sardonic Celia. Oliver Platt is outstanding as Touchstone, demonstrating the comedic power of a detailed and precise underplaying of a Shakespearean clown. Similarly understated — and more powerful for it — is Stephen Spinella as Jacques. Often played as a laughable cynic, Spinella’s Jacques is a thoughtful man who is endearing in his own way. Jacques’ melancholy balances the more antic romance, and the play feels whole encompassing both youthful romance and mature realities. It is, as Rosalind herself says, “wonderful, most wonderful wonderful.”
AS YOU LIKE IT | Shakespeare in the Park | The Delacorte Theater | Central Park, enter at W. 81st St. or E. 79th St. | Through Jun. 30 at 8 p.m. | Admission is free; visit shakespeareinthepark.org for information on tickets at the Delacorte or via same-day virtual ticketing