Crammed with clowns and lovers, dukes and rustics, great poetry and rollicking song, "As You Like It" has something for every mood. Add its idyllic setting in the Forest of Arden, and you have what may be the ideal recipe for outdoor Shakespeare.
So it's gratifying that Citi Performing Arts Center saw fit to restore its Free Shakespeare production to a full three weeks this year, and even to send it to Springfield next month. Less gratifying was last week's persistent run of thunderstorms, which not only interrupted or canceled a few shows but also wrought havoc with the lightboard on Friday.
Saturday night, however, with the lighting repaired and the lightning holding off, the show finally went on. And on - this is not a quick hit, with a running time closing in on three hours, but for the most part it's an enthralling, effective blend of comedy, romance, and poetic rumination.
Steven Maler, founding artistic director of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company (which produced the free Boston Common shows until Citi took over), keeps his large cast rambling smoothly through the woods - which, in Scott Bradley's simple design, are just flat, painted panels that slide around to create different groves of trees. Emily Pepper's stylish costumes and a few other scenic touches, notably some fascistic-looking banners for the evil Duke Frederick's oppressive court, nod nicely to the '30s without screaming about it.
That tone of bittersweet sophistication is enhanced by J Hagenbuckle and Peter McMurray's jazzy-gypsy songs and Martha Mason's lively dances, which have the exiled nobles surrounding Duke Senior in the forest with a continual festival of rustic but elegant entertainment. Picture Django Reinhardt setting up a cafe in the woods, and you've just about got it.
These scenes with the exiles are among the production's finest. Tom Gleadow lends a burly physical presence and a sweet voice to the lead singer, Amiens, and Johnny Lee Davenport has a quiet grandeur as the Duke.
But there are two overriding reasons to see this production, and their names are Fred Sullivan Jr. and Larry Coen. Coen's physical brilliance as the courtly clown Touchstone is a nonstop marvel of precisely detailed gesture and vocal variety; his delivery of Touchstone's hilarious demonstration of the seven varieties of formal insult provides a semester's worth of instruction in the fine points of physical and verbal comic performance. Try to stop laughing long enough to notice how carefully and delicately he creates each effect.
Watch, too, as Sullivan takes one of the most familiar set pieces in the canon, Jaques's speech on the seven ages of man, and makes every instant of it fresh. From the first moment, when he utters the line so famous that it's almost impossible to hear in context - "All the world's a stage" - and does it at the back of the stage, quietly, as if to himself, it's clear that this melancholy, enigmatic Jaques has found the sweet spot between universality and specificity. Sullivan moves breathtakingly from lighthearted humor, evoking the snail-slow schoolboy with the crook of a finger, to heart-stopping depth, with the cracking voice of the old man diminishing into silence, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. There is nothing "mere" about this player.
Frederick Weller, perhaps the biggest name on the program, is less satisfying as the lovestruck Orlando: He draws out every line for maximum effect, creates pauses so pregnant they're practically in labor, and generally slows the show every time he appears. Fortunately Marin Ireland is sprightly opposite him as Rosalind, with a ready wit and a happy spring to her step that get us moving out of the doldrums.
Supporting roles are a similarly mixed bag, with expertly underplayed comedy from Ali Marsh and Becky Webber, and broad overkill from Paul Melendy and Jim Wrynn. All cavils fade, though, whenever the musicians strike up again - and whenever Touchstone reappears to show the clowns how it's really done.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.