By Barry Bassis
To kick off the 50th anniversary of Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater, the Public Theater has chosen well. “As You Like It” is a bucolic comedy that is ideal for outdoor staging in the middle of Central Park. The Bard’s comedies are somewhat uneven but, as directed by Daniel Sullivan, the play is filled with verve and humor. The action has been moved to the American frontier in the 19th century and this conceit works quite well, especially because of the terrific bluegrass score by Steve Martin and the magical set by John Lee Beatty. “As You Like It” has one of those unmotivated grudges that turns up in some of Shakespeare’s works. Here, it is the enmity that Oliver (Omar Metwally) feels toward his younger brother, Orlando (David Furr). There is also a pair of Dukes (both played by Andre Braugher), one of whom banishes the other. Intertwined are various romances and some cross-dressing. Rosalind/Ganymede (Lily Rabe in another dazzling performance) is in love with Orlando. The hilarious Oliver Platt as Touchstone pursues goatherd Audrey (Donna Lynne Champlin). Finally, the shepherd Silvius (Will Rogers) falls for the shepherdess Phoebe (Susannah Flood), whose affections are initially directed elsewhere. Also adding spice are Renee Elise Goldsberry as Celia, Rosalind’s cousin and companion (an unusually plucky rendition of a character who in other productions often comes across as bland) and Stephen Spinella as the melancholy Jaques, who delivers the Ages of Man speech (“All the world’s a stage…”). Director Sullivan even evokes laughter where there are no funny lines and the evening ends on a high note with a hoedown. The run is over but next up at Shakespeare in the Park is Stephen Sondheim’s fairy tale musical “Into the Woods,” which should be another winner.
“Slowgirl” is the fine new play by Greg Pierce that is the inaugural production of the new 110-seat Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center. The work is a two-character play in which a 17-year old named Becky (Sarah Steele) visits her uncle Sterling (Zeljko Ivanek), whom she had not seen for almost 10 years, at his isolated home in Costa Rica. Over the course of the play, secrets are slowly revealed as to the reasons for her sudden trip to see her estranged relative as well as his for moving to the jungle. The playwright develops distinctively different speech patterns for each of the characters and Becky and Sterling are portrayed in all their complexity by the two stars. Anne Kauffman deserves credit for her thoughtful staging, as does Rachel Hauck for the ramshackle set, Japhy Weideman for the lighting and Leah Gelpe for the sound effects (particularly the iguanas on the roof). “Slowgirl” has extended its limited engagement run through Sunday, August 5.
For the most kinetic show in town, rush over to catch the all-too-brief return of “Fela” (at the Al Hirschfeld Theater only until Aug. 4th). The musical is a biography of the late Nigerian musical star and political agitator Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, The charismatic Sahr Ngaujah (who alternates with Adesola Osakalumi) is the incarnation of Fela, the inspired singer-songwriter, who set himself against Nigeria’s corrupt government with his Afro-beat music. In the course of the play, he is arrested, his compound destroyed, his wives raped and mutilated and his mother (portrayed by the superb Melanie Marshall) murdered. Staged by the choreographer Bill T. Jones, and written by Mr. Jones with Jim Lewis, “Fela” is dramatically coherent, musically exciting and features an extraordinary collection of dancers. I have seen the show twice and it was just as powerful at the second viewing.