Love might be in the air, but Arcadia is nonetheless a dispiriting spot to spend an evening in the Public Theater’s kickoff to its 50th anniversary season, “As You Like It.” Its principal setting — Shakespeare’s vividly imagined Forest of Arden — should make this romantic comedy an ideal candidate to be brought to life among the whispering trees of Central Park. But the soft breeze that chased away the rain on the first press night failed to alleviate the actors’ dampened ardor, making for a tediously inert staging.
As Peter Hall showed in his fine Theater Royal, Bath, production, which played New York earlier this year, the play is at its most beguiling when its romantic swoons are underscored by a somber current of melancholy. Leaning distinctly toward the broad crowdpleasing style generally favored by Shakespeare in the Park productions, director Mark Lamos fails to administer the requisite doses of passion and enchantment that can make this tale of Cupid’s mischief an experience of such delicate rapture.
Sapped of its magic, delivered with the energy and imagination of community theater, the comedy wends a talky, action-free path toward its multiple matrimonies, reducing to fanciful contrivance its playful deceptions, villains turned suddenly noble and tortuous alignment of romantic harmonies.
Neither a conceptual rethink nor an entirely traditional interpretation, the production situates the action on Riccardo Hernandez’s stylized, somewhat baffling set, presumably meant to shift the play onto some kind of abstract celestial-astrological plane. The stage is transformed into a platform of concentric circles emblazoned with Latin words and symbolic arcana, dotted by spindly trees, dissected by what appear to be shafts of light and presided over by the constellations of Cygnus and Pegasus. But this is echoed nowhere in Lamos’ plodding, earthbound take on the material.
The crucial hole at the production’s center is a Rosalind and Orlando with as much natural chemistry as Tom and Katie. As she showed in Michael Radford’s film of “The Merchant of Venice,” Lynn Collins is a confident conduit for Shakespearian verse, and as the banished heroine, she cuts a luminous figure, not quite as plucky as some Rosalinds but smart, spirited and poised.
What she doesn’t convey is the inner turbulence of a woman dizzied by the startling discovery of love but at the same time trapped by her apprehensiveness into frustrating games that keep her inamorato at a distance. Collins’ charm evaporates when Rosalind goes incognito as her male alter ego Ganymede, strutting around with a knowing archness that becomes abrasive. Only when she literally lets her hair down again do Rosalind’s vulnerability and the transporting depths of her love shine through.
As Orlando, James Waterston is a wet and unworthy recipient of her attentions. More persuasive when riled up in anger at wicked brother Oliver (Al Espinosa) than in wide-eyed, love-struck mode, Waterston’s earnest, stiffly intense Orlando is rendered mute and immobile by Rosalind’s first gesture of affection, never quite achieving reanimation thereafter.
It’s unfortunate that more heat is generated between the shepherd couple Silvius (Michael Esper) and Phoebe (Jennifer Dundas) than between the main attractions; this despite the latter’s prickly refusal right up to the altar even to consider her sweet suitor, rendered doltish by love and puppy-dog devotion.
Inconsistent acting styles plague the rest of the cast, from Jennifer Ikeda’s thoroughly routine Celia to David Cromwell’s barely adequate portrayals of the good and bad dukes, each of them hollowed of authority, to the strident clowning of Richard Thomas, who tries way too hard as the jester Touchstone.
By way of contrast, the effortlessness of Brian Bedford’s perf offers soothing relief and represents the production’s chief distinction. While he’s onstage only intermittently as the melancholy Jaques, Bedford injects welcome fire and world-weary indignation into the character’s wry observations, and his delivery of the “seven ages of man” soliloquy is a model of deft timing and unforced comic aplomb. Delighting in his character’s “humorous sadness” as much as in his sour condescension and his always unexpected discovery of intelligence in others, Bedford’s Jaques has good reason in this lackluster context to regard the company of his fellow forest exiles with minimal interest.
Pity that little else here approaches that level of insight and ease. The original compositions by William Finn and his “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” music director, Vadim Feichtner, provide pretty, whimsical accompaniment to the handful of ditties Shakespeare sprinkled through the play — most of them pleasingly sung by Bob Stillman — even if they do ultimately seem like refugee tunes from “Pippin.”
But like the often unflattering costumes, the play just seems to hang limply in the humid night air, with the arduousness and the rewards of its characters’ tormented quests for love vaporizing even as they unfold.