Katy Stephens, Jonjo O'Neill, and Mariah Gale
in As You Like It
(© Ellie Kurttz)
Katy Stephens, Jonjo O'Neill, and Mariah Gale
in As You Like It
(© Ellie Kurttz)
Is there anything wrong with As You Like It, the first of the Royal Shakespeare's five-play season at the Park Avenue Armory being presented as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. Perhaps a little. But so much of what's right with Michael Boyd's production of the Bard's gender-bending comedy abounds that dwelling on any of its flaws is far too ungrateful.

Rosalind (Katy Stephens) and her cousin Celia (Mariah Gale, initially in Elizabethan white face) trip off to the Arden Forest as the result of a falling-out with Celia's tyrannical father, Duke Frederick (James Tucker). There, they meet - again -- Orlando (Jonjo O'Neill), who's run off to escape the wrath of his hard-hearted brother Oliver (Charles Aitken) -- as well as the vengeful Duke.

While they are all hiding out in Arden, they ultimately interact with a troupe of characters that includes Rosalind's exiled Father, Duke Ferdinand (Clarence Smith), and his gleefully melancholic sidekick Jaques (Forbes Masson). It's also where set designer Tom Piper tacks evidence of Orlando's poetic yearnings for Rosalind -- not only throughout the auditorium, but in the entry spaces as well.

The chemistry between Stephens' witty Rosalind (who later poses as the male Ganymede) and O'Neill's off-handedly virile Orlando is so combustible that Bunsen burners would shatter. The mere way he looks at her and the way she's seized by passion make not only their hearts beat faster, but might even cause heart-pounding among ticket buyers.

Audiences will laugh heartily as well, as Arden is also full of delightfully wise and dim-witted rustics, embodied exceedingly well by Geoffrey Freshwater, Dyfan Dwyfor, Sophie Russell, Christine Entwisle, James Traherne and Darmesh Patel. As the clownish Touchstone, Richard Katz, whose hair surrounds his pate as his ruff circles his neck, unfortunately overplays his comedic hand and makes the play's second half feel an iota longer than it should.

If that's a rare instance of the production going in the wrong direction, there are plenty of others where this As You Like It goes blessedly right. Start with the act-one wrestling match between Orlando and favored combatant Charles (David Carr), as staged by fight director Terry King, after which blood from a head wound is left on an upstage wall.

Or take how Boyd -- as inspired a director as the RSC has ever had -- contrasts Duke Frederick's court, all members dressed in mourning-black (Piper's sleek costumes) with Duke Ferdinand's men, garbed in brown leather, as, initially, is Orlando. It's an inspired choice.

The scenes where winter rules the land and in which Duke Ferdinand and companions take stage are also beautifully rendered. Not the least of its many high points is Masson's delivery of the famous "All the world's a stage" declaration. It's so full of nuance that the late John Gielgud might have bowed in homage.