Some secrets are more secret than others. The other day I was 115 feet below ground, inside Secret Caverns in upstate New York, marveling at the attraction's 100-foot underground waterfall. Man, is that loud. With abundant, fanciful advertising signage rippling for miles along the nearby roads, Secret Caverns are surely the least secret caverns in these United States.
A bit harder to find is the Secret Theatre. Located in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens, NY, the Secret Theatre is not far from well-known cultural institutions like P.S. 1 and Silvercup Studios. But the two-year-old space is tucked away under the shadow of the elevated number 7 train, set back from a night-desolate street through a loading dock, indicated by a single sign, then another half-hidden sign, then through a lightly marked door… you get the picture.
Manhattan snobs, check your snobbery at that door. The Secret Theatre's current production of Shakespeare's popular comedy As You Like It is as good as any Off Off Broadway Shakespeare you'll find on the more glittery side of the East River, and better than most.
The Queens Players, resident at the Secret, are not to be confused with the Queen's Company, which presents Shakespeare with all-female casts and anachronistic bursts of pop music. This As You Like It does not lure (or repel) with experimental casting or unorthodox interpretation. Extraordinarily well directed by Greg Cicchino, it triumphs with more or less pure Shakespeare.
We'll probably never know whether the Bard's inability to use female actors had anything to do with his attraction to stories that involved young maids disguising themselves as swains. What we can safely say, reinforced by the elastic Claire Morrison's animated and expert performance here, is that Rosalind is one of Shakespeare's most fully realized and interesting female characters.
Banished from the court of the usurping Duke Frederick, she flees into the Forest of Arden accompanied by her moody cousin Celia (the comically smoldering Melisa Breiner-Sanders) and the court Fool, Touchstone (the magnificent Daniel Smith, here channeling John Cleese.)
The forest, also the hiding place of Rosalind's beloved and already banished father, Duke Senior, and his band of loyalists, is at first a "desert" of hunger and exhaustion to the newcomers. But the upbeat Duke (the appropriately stentorian Timothy J. Cox, who also plays the usurper) has fashioned it into a pastoral realm of merry ease, removed from the stresses of court (read: modern) life. Yet the forest's fantastical aura also makes it a fit setting for the play's most famous passage, the "All the world's a stage" speech. Uttered by the melancholy Jaques, it is, among other things, the ultimate exposition of life's meaninglessness. Yet Jaques (Chris Kateff in a knife-sharp performance) is a man apart. Both mocked and humored by the other men of the Duke's company, he cannot, even to the bitter end, share in the rough optimism of his lord, nor the love-soaked banterings and witticisms of the young lovers prancing abundantly about.
And love and wit do triumph. If, as Touchstone lectures, "The truest poetry is the most feigning," it is nonetheless the rhymes carved in the trees by Rosalind's swain, the passionate, lovelorn Orlando (an effective Anthony Martinez), that keep hope burning, not to mention the story.
Mr. Cicchino has a gift for focusing his actors' strengths, and for creating moments of unscripted, silent humor that move the action swiftly along. From his fine cast he draws out a number of standout performances in the smaller roles too, including Michael Henrici as Orlando's cruel elder brother Oliver (and the heavily inebriated and uproariously named Sir Oliver Martext); Griffin DuBois as the besotted shepherd Silvius; the zesty Larissa Laurel as Phebe, Silvius's cantankerous object of desire; a mutely hilarious Amy Newhall as Touchstone's foil, the clueless country wench Audrey; and the delightful Louis Tullo, a welcome newcomer to the New York stage, in two roles, notably a very funny LeBeau. Indeed, despite the dominance of the Rosalind-Orlando storyline, the production is the very model of a modern ensemble piece.
Leave it to Shakespeare, in the loving and crafty hands of a director like Mr. Cicchino, to bring to glorious life the human tapestry in all its poetic good cheer under the rumbling elevated trains of Long Island City.
As You Like It runs only through Sept. 5, so make your plans now. Tickets (call 866-811-4111 if you don't like ordering online) are a piddling $15. You can't even buy a movie ticket and popcorn for that anymore, but you can get excellent live Shakespeare one subway stop from Manhattan.