“Under the Greenwood Tree” charts the making of the Public Theater’s free Public Works “As You Like It” musical
The Public Theater was preparing an encore presentation of its Public Works production of “As You Like It” when the health crisis took hold of New York City. Unable to stage the musical on the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, the play’s story is told through the new documentary “Under the Greenwood Tree.”
The film, now streaming on ALL ARTS, charts Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery’s musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy for the outdoor theater in 2017, focusing on how more than 200 amateur performers from New York City’s five boroughs came together to perform alongside a professional cast.
When it premiered, the show marked the fifth to be mounted by the Public Works program, and Woolery (director) and Taub (composer) wanted to do a piece that pushed the project further. They settled on “As You Like It,” condensing the iconic work into a 90-minute, single-act musical.
The team began work on adapting the play before the 2016 presidential election — the outcome of which made it take on new meaning.
“We wrote the musical in real-time, pre- and post-election,” Woolery said in an interview featured in the film. “As we were putting together and editing the story, and figuring out where we wanted to line up the songs, the election came, and it passed, and then we discovered that LGBTQ, women’s rights, immigrant’s rights were under assault. And it just so happened that the story of William Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ [was] the perfect container for us to really investigate that story in 2017.”
The production explored issues of empowerment through its characters, dance and music, adapting the play to a modern setting. In the song “Rosalind, Be Merry,” for example, the heroine’s sadness over her father, and her cousin’s subsequent beseechment for her to “be merry,” are spun into a song that tackles contemporary pressures placed on women to smile and be positive at all times.
“For such a long time, I’ve felt like I’ve had to please others, right? Especially as a woman,” Mayelyn Perdomo Santos, who played Phoebe, said. “Not taking up too much space. Not being too loud. Not speaking my mind. The reason why that song, and these themes of female empowerment, and the show, are so important to me is because it resonates with my own journey of learning to say: ‘You know what? I’m not gonna live up to the things you expected of me.'”
The play also allowed for, as Woolery explained, the team to “investigate who gets to love.”
“I’m a Black queer male, and ‘As You Like it’ remains the only time in my career that I’ve been asked to play specifically a Black queer male,” Troy Anthony, who performed the role of Andy, said. “So it felt really significant for me, and I felt really seen in a way that I didn’t know I needed to be seen.”
Though the 2020 remounting of the production was put on hold, the community feeling at the heart of the project lingers for those involved.
“Building community isn’t just for this moment; it’s so we can hand something to people that they can feel welcome in,” Ato Blankson-Wood, who starred as Orlando, said. “We’re not building communities for ourselves, we are building communities so it ripples out. And it continues after we’re gone.”
Top Image: Darius De Haas and Shaina Taub (center) and the company of the Public Theater’s free Public Works production of "As You Like It." Photo credit: Joan Marcus.