NEW YORK — THE new production of "As You Like It" at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park marks a couple of milestones. For one, it opens the 30th season of free Shakespeare plays in this perennially pleasant outdoor setting. For another, it marks the 20th installment in the ambitious "See All of Shakespeare" marathon launched a few years ago by the late Joseph Papp.
Perhaps most important, it proves that a superbly produced high-culture enterprise like this can survive and even flourish despite the challenges of a depressed economy and a political atmosphere that has often seemed hostile to the arts in recent years. Chief credit goes to Mr. Papp, who built the New York Shakespeare Festival into the energetic institution it is today, and JoAnne Akalaitis, the imaginative artistic director who now serves as his chosen successor.
This praise might seem misplaced if the festival's current offering were not of very high quality. Happily, it's a winner in almost every respect - wholly true to the spirit of Shakespeare's comedy, yet fetchingly contemporary in its clever visual ideas and flashes of mischievous wit.
On one hand, nature reigns supreme in the show, with live sheep and chickens flanking a renovated stage area that provides an exquisite view of Central Park's greenery in the background. On the other hand, modern technology pays unexpected visits, when an antique jalopy and a farm-fresh tractor chug amusingly into view at carefully timed moments.
The performances careen all over the chronological map, meanwhile, from the ripe Elizabethan inflections of Donald Moffat, as Touchstone the clown, to the latter-day drawl of Siobhan Fallon, as Phebe the shepherdess. Gluing together the mix of styles and shticks is Elizabeth McGovern - always a first-rank comic actress, and deliciously at home with the trousers-wearing heroine, Rosalind.
Adrian Hall, longtime head of the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I., has directed the early scenes in an uninvolving way that makes the overall vigor of the production even more exciting once the main characters reach the Forest of Arden and the multiple wooings and winnings of the comedy commence in earnest.
In addition to orchestrating the performances into a smoothly flowing ensemble, his most impressive achievement is to make consistently creative use of the large outdoor space at his disposal. He spreads out some scenes expansively, yet smartly condenses others into a more intimate arrangement, such as the fireside setting for the famous "All the world's a stage" speech, which is splendidly delivered by Richard Libertini as Jacques the attendant.
Others in the cast include Jake Weber as Orlando, the Duke's youngest son; John Scanlon as Adam, the creaky old servant; Kathryn Meisle as Celia, who adventures with Rosalind in the forest; and the talented Larry Bryggman, typically solid as the usurper who sets the story in motion. Melina Root's costumes are beguilingly colorful amid Eugene Lee's scenery - not since James Lapine customized the landscape several years ago has the Delacorte looked more entrancing - and Richard Cumming composed the spright ly music.
In sum, this "As You Like It" is likable indeed. It continues through July 26, to be followed by No. 21 in the marathon, "The Comedy of Errors," scheduled for Aug. 6-30 under Brazilian director Caca Rosset, with Larry Block and Elizabeth Franz.