Artemis and the Wild Things present As You Like It(Photo: Anthony Collins)
Artemis and the Wild Things present As You Like It
(Photo: Anthony Collins)
All the world's a stage for Artemis and the Wild Things, whose mini-tour of As You Like It in Central Park doesn't confine itself to the Delacorte Theater. The performance that I attended was in a remote section of Central Park West called Cherry Hill -- a location that even music director John Schenkel had trouble finding. Like the rude mechanicals of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, this company sees an open area and says: "This green plot shall be our stage."

The group's treatment of Shakespeare is refreshing. Too often, directors compete with the Bard, using his words as tools to explore their own creative energies. How often do Shakespeare productions try to stun viewers with "brave" all-female or all-nude casting; with "original" hip-hop revisions; with "interesting" Kabuki treatments? What theatergoers ultimately get is not the timeless poetry and stories that made Shakespeare immortal but a gloss of the director's politics, tastes, and interests.

This production's daring approach to As You Like It is to simply tell the story. Duke Frederick (Gregg Lauterbach) has usurped the throne of Duke Senior (James Glenn) and banishes all of his supporters into the forest of Arden. Orlando (Derek Johnsen), Duke Senior's son, thinks that his expulsion from the forest is drawing him away from his true love, Rosalind (Artemis Preeshl). Little does he know that Rosalind herself has had to flee to the forest disguised as the young boy Ganymede, who offers to cure Orlando's lovesickness with some interesting medicine: Orlando must come to woo Ganymede every day, "pretending" that "he" is Rosalind.

Performed next to the cool waters of the Great Pond, the play is presented as a light stroll through the forest. In the world of As You Like It, love is a condition in which the smitten have dropped jaws and sweaty palms, and heave plaintive sighs. Lovesickness is mostly comic, the afflicted more likely to evoke our laughter than our sympathy. Lauterbach's tyrannical duke isn't really a bad guy behind the stern, raspy voice -- and this is not meant as a slight.

Some of the actors double as trees in the forest and two adorable children play the roles of lambs, making Arden the charming, otherworldly landscape Shakespeare intended. Jeffrey Lependorf provides an ethereal music score that helps the production when it isn't drawing too much attention to itself. In search of material to sing, the cast turns to the stage directions, even though these were added to Shakespeare's text by others. When the script does call for songs, the tunes receive extensive treatment; though the music is beautiful, the fact that there is so much focus upon it hurts the play's pacing.

The company makes much ado about the musical talent of its members. A brief glance through the program shows that most of the performers' credits are in opera, not classical theater. For the most part, the singers prove their theater chops; Deborah Anne Faw as Phoebe, the singing shepherdess, brings an operatic stage presence to her small role. And the cast members who do have acting experience make their talents known: Artemis Preeshl, who founded the Wild Things, is one producer who actually deserves to give herself a leading role in her own production.

When fight and dance choreographers, musicians, and actors team up to bring the public free summer Shakespeare, a production's heart is obviously in the right place. How wonderful it is when the result is as good as the intentions! The Wild Things present As You Like It as extra-light entertainment, but they do so with expert simplicity. As A Midsummer Night's Dream's Theseus puts it, "Never anything can be amiss / When simpleness and duty tender it."