NEW YORK—Wear a sweater. Who knew the Forest of Arden, the setting for much of Shakespeare's bucolic "As You Like It," could be so chilly?
But that's the take director Sam Mendes has chosen for The Bridge Project's brooding yet effective revival of the Bard's romantic comedy, now on view at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater.
The play may have plenty of laughs, but "As You Like It" is also a tale of separation: the gulf between parent and child, brother and brother and, most importantly, its two young lovers. And Mendes, director of such films as "American Beauty" and "Revolutionary Road," has found the darker elements in a play usually awash in sunnier production values.
What softens Mendes' wintery ideas (including a forest of bare trees by set designer Tom Piper) is the warm, thoroughly entrancing presence of Juliet Rylance, who plays Rosalind. She is one of Shakespeare's most spirited heroines, and the actress is a delight, whether swooning over a surprisingly gloomy Orlando or scampering about in male drag as an adventurer named Ganymede.
Rosalind is banished to Arden after her usurping uncle takes over from her exiled father. Yet for her cross-dressing, woodland adventure, Rosalind gets a companion, her cousin Celia, an equally lively young woman played by Michelle Beck.
Christian Camargo's Orlando is severely moonstruck, yet there is a touch of melancholy to his performance, a man adrift until he finally is reunited with his true love.
But Orlando is edged out in the sadness department by Jacques, the courtier entrusted with one of Shakespeare's most famous speeches: His recitation of the "Seven Ages of Man," which begins with "all the world's a stage." A superb Stephen Dillane delivers this exquisite meditation on life with a disquieting matter-of-factness that makes it all the more touching.
It is left to the minor characters to carry the comedy, most notably the clownish, quick-witted Touchstone portrayed by Thomas Sadoski with considerable verbal dexterity. He's well-matched with Jenni Barber as Audrey, the epitome of country-wench sauciness. But then so are Aaron Krohn as a dim shepherd and Ashlie Atkinson as Phoebe, the indifferent object of his desire.
These rustics can't quite shake the coldness Mendes imposes on the more serious side of the play. No matter. An inspired Rylance manages to bridge the froth and the frostiness of the director's conception. But then this actress could melt the most icy of hearts.