By: JK Clarke
Making Shakespeare’s plays palatable to new and younger audiences seems to be in the foreground of many theater companies of late. Though setting plays in contemporary times is nothing new, some measures have seemed rather extreme — case in point, a hip-hop themed Romeo and Juliet at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival a few seasons back, which delighted some and anguished other, more traditional theater-goers.
But occasionally the tweaking and modernizing works exceedingly well. Take the musical re-imagining of As You Like It, Under The Greenwood Tree, now playing at the Flea Theater in TriBeCa. There simply aren’t enough good things to say about this production. It is exactly what every producer wants from a contemporary Shakespeare play: it’s fun, it’s unique and it’s universally accessible. There’s no reason whatsoever why this play shouldn’t be running long term Off-Broadway or even on Broadway. Producers and investors take note.
As You Like It is as familiar and oft-produced (if not more so) as any of Shakespeare’s plays because it is a guiltless and gentle paean to love and nature: a celebration of summer. Under The Greenwood Tree seizes on that theme, dwelling on the all important ode to romance the play exudes. Director, text adapter and music creator Tyler Phillips does a remarkable job of editing the play and fitting the musical numbers in absolutely seamlessly.
The production, set in the present, brings together a large, multi-skilled, talented ensemble of musicians, dancers, singers and actors. There’s nary an actor who can’t sing, nor a musician who cannot act. Feeling like a cross between a performance by Grammy winning rock group Arcade Fire and the mood of the Coen Brothers’ cinematic masterpiece O Brother Where Art Thou, scenes from the play guide gently and smoothly into musical numbers with a pop/folk lilt. Orlando professes his adoration for Rosalind by pasting love notes throughout the forest and then proclaims his love with the lyrically and musically delightful “Idiot Love.” Other numbers, like the ensemble piece, “Summer of the Stones,” take advantage of the enormous variety of instruments employed: guitar, mandolin, cello, trumpet, glockenspiel, saxophone, ukulele and various percussive instruments, to name but a few. What’s more, many scenes are augmented by the “Arden Ensemble,” a group of dancers beautifully choreographed by Jennifer Oman, either performing on their own or, as the scene dictates, fluidly interacting with the players. Nothing is forced, awkward or out of place.
Certain performances stand out. Co-director Carly Howard’s Rosalind and Kendra Jo Brook’s Celia make for a believable pair of young noblesse (dressed as vibrant preppies in primary colors), who transition (in myriad ways) convincingly to shepherds upon their banishment to the forest. Touchstone (Kyle Salee) and Audrey (Bethany Taylor), though romantic comic relief, are not, as is often the case, made into buffoons. Taylor’s Audrey is a humored country girl, both pretty and gruff, who sings beautifully and likely plays a better trumpet than any in Arden. And thoughtful wit Jacques (Dan Wilson) delivers one most thoughtful (and elegantly choreographed) “All the world’s a stage,” speeches that we have seen in a long, long time.
In what seems to be a summer of Shakespeare (so many different productions!) in New York, Under The Greenwood Tree is a standout among the standouts. It would be a shame if it really did close this weekend and was not re-mounted in the very near future. Just in case, though, you’d better see it before this magical celebration of summer fades into autumn.
Under The Greenwood Tree. Through August 18 at The Flea Theater (41 White Street, between Broadway and Church Street).www.GreenwoodTree.net