There is a bird that nests atop a tree,
Atop a tower built upon a set,
That sits atop a stage we watch for free,
And actors’ actions acting make her fret.
‘Twas this same bird I watched fly to and fro
For lo the better part of this play’s act
The first. She balanced on the ends of bows
One eye on nest and ready to react.
In flight, as scenes and sets commenced to shift
And turn, and actors tell told stories unaware
That up above them families of swift
And certain feathered nature harbored there.
When force of night removed her from display
I shifted my attention to the play.
Okay, okay – so it’s not Shakespeare – but Shakespeare isn’t himself these days. Not in this production anyway. This isn’t a horrible show, and there are some stellar supporting performances: Oliver Platt and Will Rogers are outstanding. Neither is rest is silence, certainly not with the microphones that make the entire night sound like an old drive-in movie. It is just ordinary, and I wanted it to be spectacular, like the bird for whom this was a life and death proposition.
Somewhere in France, Duke Senior, the good guy, has been overthrown by his brother, Frederick, the paranoid guy, (both played by Andre Braugher), Rosalind (Lily Rabe), the good guy’s daughter, is allowed to stay in court because she is the best friend of Celia (Renee Elise Goldsberry). One night at ye ole local wrestling match, Rosalind sets eyes on the challenger in the match, Orlando (David Furr) and Bada-bing! It is love at first sight.
Orlando’s older crabby brother Oliver (Omar Metwally) does not hold Orlando in good stead so Orlando decides to get out of town. Coincidentally the Duke has a hissy fit and banishes Rosalind. Olivia decides to join Rosalind and the two agree to travel in disguise - Celia as a poor woman, Aliena, and Rosalind as a man, Ganymede. And as an FYI here, women dressing as men was unusual but not unheard of in times past. It was the only way they could have independence back when they owned nothing unless it was inherited and they stayed single, had no political voice, and were considered the property of the nearest sperm donor. Rosalind and Celia decide to take the court jester Touchstone, (Oliver Platt – thank God) who has one of those brains with which you don’t want to mess. His speech is sleight of tongue. It makes sense, but you never know which walnut shell is hiding the bean. Both our destined lovers have chose the forest of Arden as their destination, and both meet up with the Good Duke and his merry men, including the silver tongued Jaques (Stephen Spinella) who seems to have been plucked from a different dimension. Jaques is living in a parallel universe, and is in Arden because he cannot figure out how to get out.
The threads of the plot are anchored like tent ropes and s-l-o-w-l-y work themselves into a happily ever after for everyone but the Duke and the poor bird tending her nest in the foliage atop the set’s lookout tower.
Nothing new here. Lots of us know the plot. And it was only seven years ago that the self-same was produced at the Delacorte. This time around Daniel Sullivan has chosen a Hatfield McCoy theme complete with some terrific music for banjo, guitar and fiddle written by Steve Martin. And still, still, there is nothing new.
I guess when you are watching a play that is done over and over and over and over again, the only new element will be the performer, really. And here, with the exception of Platt – who nearly sparkles with life that is large and affecting - and to a lesser extent Rogers, there is, I repeat, nothing new. It is light and lovely and there you are.
If this were in any other theatre besides the Delacorte the production would not fare well as far as critics are concerned. But the Delacorte is different. Here there is a guaranteed audience who waits in line for hours to secure tickets and then scamper off to meet friends for a picnic dinner. The performance is dessert, and there are few moments in our New York lives that do more to remind us why we love this town than watching a performance at the Delacorte. As the sun sets, in the most perfect slow fade ever, and the swallows finish up gathering teeny bugs in the air, and that one bird brings the final serving of dinner home to roost at the tipity top of the set’s foliage, your breathing changes. Your body relaxes in a way that it rarely does when you are outside in New York. Life is good, and you can feel it.
Nice work if you can get it. And don’t forget the bird.
"An absolutely smashing production."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"Strikes stirring and memorable chords."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Something special is happening here: The parts may not all be great, but the sum is simply wonderful. "
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"A robust and jolly midsummer fling"
David Sheward for Back Stage
"The ensemble is utterly charming."
David Cote for Time Out NY
"This light-hearted revival of a lovely play is about as nice as summer Shakespeare-going gets."
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey
"The uniform strength of the entire ensemble here, and their invigorating ease with the language, is what distinguishes Sullivan’s luminous production."
David Rooney for the Hollywood Reporter
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...