Director Daniel Sullivan's delectable new production of As You Like It, playing at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park through June 30, marks the 50th anniversary season of the Public Theater's great Shakespeare in the Park tradition with an irresistible combination of charm and ingenuity. Lucky New Yorkers, who have come to expect no less, have reason to celebrate. The friends, lovers, and family in Shakespeare's gentle pastoral romantic musical comedy (yes, he packs in all of that, plus the Top Ten speech ''All the world's a stage'') all find delight by escaping the confines of court life for the freedom and simple equality of wild nature. And so does the audience as we untangle from the bustle of urban life for a couple of soft evening hours in New York City's incomparable Central Park.
Sullivan and his esteemed scenic designer John Lee Beatty know not to compete with the city's real skyline and foliage that frame the stage. Instead, in this efficiently evocative production, court life and its strictures are represented by a simple, hulking wooden fortress of a stockade more Canadian Mountie territory than the fancy France of Shakespeare's imagination. This is where Orlando (David Furr, who made such a fetching Jack Worthing in the recent Broadway production of The Importance of Being Earnest), the youngest son of a lordly family, is bullied by his older brother. It's where Rosalind (Lily Rabe) longs for her father, Duke Senior (Andre Braugher), who has been banished by his own contentious, competitive regal brother. And it's also where Orlando and Rosalind meet cute and fall in love at first sight. Not that they recognize or admit it at first, of course. Shakespeare bids us wait.
Beatty's set emphasizes the lack of views and of perspective to be had in such a rough-hewn lock-up of a court. But when the walls slide apart to reveal a lacy playground of fairy-tale trees, As You Like It shifts to the Forest of Arden. Everyone runs off to the forest for one reason or another: Rosalind, disguised as a young man named Ganymede; Rosalind's dear friend and cousin Celia (Renee Elise Goldsberry), hiding under the pseudonym Aliena; Orlando, pining for Rosalind and receiving lessons in courtship from Ganymede; Rosalind's father, diminished in stature; and, most piquant of all, the melancholy lord called Jaques. Played with a revivifying mix of vinegar and sighs by Stephen Spinella, Jaques provides just the right tonal temperature to bring this bittersweet, wise, funny, romantic concoction to the right boil. (Among other gifts, Spinella makes ''All the world's a stage'' sound matter-of-fact and newly insightful.)
The shimmering loveliness of Beatty's Delacorte forest where local folk appear to leap from tree to tree like creatures out of The House of Flying Daggers provides a sweet contrast to Lily Rabe's sharp, pleasingly spitfire performance. She's a little bit Katharine Hepburn, a little bit Rosalind Russell, and a drop of leftover Portia from her notable performance in The Merchant of Venice two years ago. Working in spiritual tandem with Goldsberry, she keeps the unsuspecting Orlando on his toes. Meanwhile, Shakespeare makes gentle sport of all the rest the shepherds and shepherdesses, the fools and old men, the musicians and simpletons, the lovers and brothers and servants and wenches. And in the end, we motley fools get to stream out Central Park after dark, enchanted by a city that is exactly as we like it. And thereby to quote the Bard hangs a tale. A
(Free ticket info: shakespeareinthepark.org)