Lynn Collins and James Waterston in As You Like It
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Lynn Collins and James Waterston
in As You Like It
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Once more into the forest! Arden, the whimsical wood that provides the setting for Shakespeare's romantic comedy As You Like It, has been a popular escape for theatergoers for centuries. New Yorkers most recently sojourned there this winter, when BAM presented Sir Peter Hall's melancholic version of the play with his daughter Rebecca as the lovestruck Rosalind.

Now, the Public Theater -- which offered Erika Schmidt's minimalist six-actor version in 2003 -- has engineered another journey to Arden in the well chosen, al fresco Delacorte Theater. And the company has wisely handed the reins to director Mark Lamos, no stranger to the Bard's work. He delivers a mostly diverting and remarkably traditional production, sumptuously costumed by Candice Donnelly and featuring an enchanting musical score by William Finn and Vadim Feichtner. (The songs are nicely sung by Bob Stillman). It is anchored by two extraordinary performances: stage veteran Brian Bedford's scene-stealing Jaques and relative newcomer Lynn Collins's revelatory turn as Rosalind. Had everyone onstage risen to their level, this would be a much-more-than-likeable As You Like It.

Things start well with the first view of Riccardo Hernandez's giant sundial of a set, embellished and embossed with Latin words and phrases; this proves to be a playful playing field for Shakespeare's lighthearted meditation on the vagaries of love. A pair of blue trees gives way to an orchard of golden arbors when we enter Arden, where Rosalind -- now dressed for safety as a young man named Ganymede -- has fled after being banished from the kingdom by her usurping uncle, Duke Frederick (David Cromwell). She's accompanied by her cousin Celia (Jennifer Ikeda), Frederick's headstrong daughter, and the court clown Touchstone (Richard Thomas).

Once there, they encounter all manner of men and women, including Rosalind's devoted dad, Duke Senior (Cromwell again); Silvius, a lovesick shepherd (Michael Esper); Phebe, the scornful object of his affection (Jennifer Dundas); Audrey, a simple young woman to whom Touchstone takes a liking (Vanessa Aspillaga); and Jaques, a tart-tongued philosopher who entertains the Duke and his band. Most important to the plot, there's the poor-but-valiant Orlando (James Waterston), whom Rosalind bewitched during their one meeting at court and whom she teaches to be a faithful lover while in her male guise of Ganymede.

Although she is offstage at many moments, Rosalind is the central character of As You Like It, and Collins seizes the role by the throat. No novice to Shakespeare -- she was Ophelia to Liev Schreiber's Hamlet at the Public in 1999, Juliet for Sir Peter Hall in 2000, and a powerful Portia in last year's film version of The Merchant of Venice -- she spiritedly recites the Bard's prose. Rarely has lovesickness seemed as enchanting as in Collins's swooning rendition, and the actress has great fun swaggering as Ganymede. (If she's not quite as convincing in male drag as Rebecca Hall, so be it.) Her skill in recitation aside, it's her emotional grounding of Rosalind's desires -- especially her adoration of Orlando -- that makes Collins so compelling in the part.

The only performer on hand to match her -- and, perhaps, surpass her -- is Bedford. This six-time Tony Award nominee (and winner for The School for Wives) once again gives a tour-de-force acting lesson, reining in his trademark mannerisms just enough to create a fully formed version of Jaques. This character can become tedious in the wrong hands, but not here; on the contrary, one regrets Bedford's numerous exits the second he departs. He makes the famed "Seven Ages of Man" speech, the one that begins "All the world's a stage, sound completely new and marvelously relevant.

The rest of Lamos's cast is well-spoken but, otherwise, it's a motley crew. Thomas is clearly having fun as Touchstone, and his broad delivery earns a fair share of laughs. Dundas, in deliciously high dudgeon, and the appealing Esper make the most of Phebe and Silvius. (Never before have I been so delighted by this often grating subplot.) Aspillaga does well as Audrey, Herb Foster is a hearty Adam, and Helmar August Cooper is very fine as Corin. On the other hand, Ikeda -- who was rather charming when playing three different roles in the previous Public Theater production of the play -- is quite shrill as Celia. Cromwell is unbearably boorish as both Dukes, with no more nobility than Don King, and he's relatively indistinguishable whether playing nice or nasty.

And then there's James Waterston. In face, bearing, and vocal timbre, he's practically a carbon copy of his dad Sam. (I wonder if Lamos's decision to have a bucket of apples jolted out of his hand and fall to the ground in the first scene wasn't intended as a visual joke about the apple not falling far from the tree.) But though Lamos may have hoped that Waterston fils would follow in his pere's footsteps and set the Delacorte on fire, as Sam did in the 1970s in Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet, fate has had other plans. His Orlando is essentially a cipher, and if Collins's performance occasionally goes just a bit over the top, one suspects that's simply to compensate for her co-star's lack of intensity.

In the epilogue, Rosalind urges the audience to take away as much of the play as they like. No doubt they will take away an appreciation for her excellent work and for this timeless comedy.