Sam Mendes’ Bridge Project set an almost impossibly high standard in its premier season last year — with transcendent productions of “A Winter’s Tale” and “The Cherry Orchard” at Brooklyn’s BAM and in London at the Old Vic featuring transatlantic casts led by Simon Russell Beale, Rebecca Hall, and Ethan Hawke.
This season, without any of those players, Mendes has hit not exactly a sophomore slump, but something merely good, with another fine cast that has admirably committed to take “As You Like It” and “The Tempest” all over the world.
This season seems — according to a director’s note — to be built around the great Stephen Dillane playing Prospero in the “Tempest,” which does not go up until mid-February. He shines in “As You Like It” as a world-weary Jacques summarizing human existence in the “all-the-world’s-a-stage” speech.
But in Mendes’ attempt to both darken this comedy and broaden its humor, he seems to have lost some of its humanity and blunted its poetry. Shakespeare’s royals and rustics are the source of much mirth here, but laughs come easier and less cheaply when the players are allowed to be recognizable people rather than just comic types. Thomas Sadoski’s (“reasons to be pretty”) clown Touchstone, in Beckett tramp mode, is an exception, though perversely it is his job to be funny.
Brit Juliet Rylance as Rosalind and American Michelle Beck as Celia, with their teen-age enthusiasm, put me more in mind of the cousins in the “Patty Duke Show” than the noble young women thrust from the court they are supposed to be. And when Rylance dons ostensibly male attire in the Forest of Arden, her Ganymede looks more like Ellen DeGeneres than the kind of sexy man that drives Ashlie Atkinson’s Phoebe to distraction. When, as Ganymede, she asks Orlando to kiss her while he thinks of Rosalind, the moment also lacks erotic sizzle.
The depiction of the exiles in the Forest of Arden as Depression-Era homeless men is a new one and not a take that grabbed me. It does set up a marked contrast with the lighter, livelier second half when Rosalind, in the emotional climax of the play, reunites with her father, Duke Senior (Michael Thomas who richly inhabits this role and that of his usurping brother Duke Frederick), and everyone marries everyone else in the dizzying finale.
Dan Via wants to shock us with the surprise ending of “Daddy,” but I was so anaesthetized at that point by the lackluster dialogue and put off by the stereotypical gay “humor” that the bizarre twist did not carry the punch that it should. Via also makes the mistake of taking one of the three roles, denying himself the aesthetic distance that might have helped him shape his first play better.
Gerald McCullough of “CSI” fame has demonstrated his capacity for fine stage acting and gamely does his best with the lead, but there is no saving this mess, which also features young Bjorn DuPaty as his lover.
The players try to tackle some serious contemporary issues from the debate over same-sex marriage to the complications that often accompany gay parenthood and intergenerational relationships, but the unfocused direction by David Hilder does not illuminate them.
AS YOU LIKE IT
Brooklyn Academy of Music
651 Fulton St. at Ashland Pl.
Feb. 3-6, Mar. 2-4 at 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 7 at 3 p.m.; Mar. 6, 7 & 13 at 2 p.m.
$35 - $95; bam.org
TGB Arts Center
312 W. 36th St., third fl.
Wed.-Mon. at 8 p.m. through Feb. 13