By Ted Hadley

BUFFALO NEWS CONTRIBUTING REVIEWER

Published:July 24, 2011, 12:00 AM

You have to hand it to William Shakespeare: He knew the coolest places to hang out.

Illyra, for example, in his “Twelfth Night.” Work shunned, song and dance incessant — “If music be the food of love, play on,” said its Duke— and happy hour went on all day.

And the Forest of Arden, a wooded sanctuary where unlikely animals roamed, with fun and frolic found in the occasional glade and where unpredictability was the norm.

Arden is central to “As You Like It,” Shakespeare’s durable and whimsical pastoral comedy, more than 400 years old, a story gleaned from antiquity, playful and dreamlike, silly and fanciful, with some of Shakespeare’s most famous characters in full flight: the beautiful and pursued Rosalind; the melancholy philosopher Jaques; a Fool, Touchstone.

Saul Elkin’s Shakespeare in Delaware Park opened the second production of its 36th season on Thursday, Eileen Dugan directing a talky, gentle and sprightly but mostly straightforward “As You Like It.” It’s a version that is easy to take even in its late, interminable moments — which include an epilogue — when its charm wanes and watchers long for a happy ending. Soon.

It’s a familiar tale: A duke again, Frederick (a meanie), banishes people — foes, friends, family — from his realm for little reason. Arden is a popular haven and besides, love is on the loose there, it seems. A lad, Orlando, brave and handsome but a bit dim, arrives in Arden looking for Rosalind; she loves Orlando but decides to disguise herself and teach the smitten boy to woo. She has her doubts that she can carry off the ruse, confiding to her friend, Celia, “Do you not know that I am a woman? When I think, I must speak.”

Orlando never catches on that his teacher is Rosalind until the last minute when the woo gives way to wed; several couples — “country copulatives,” some theater historians have called them—tie the knot after chase through Arden, with misunderstandings galore until marital and political peace are restored after a series of fortuitous events.

Director Dugan has done several things to make all of this enjoyable: Rosalind, Shakespeare’s favorite — it’s the largest female role in his canon — is still a darling and desirable here, but she is more of a fun-loving prankster. No harm done.

The curt Jaques? He’s an unhappy sort, delivering his “Seven Ages of Man” soliloquy without pomposity, no great disclosures, just food for thought. It works thanks to Tim Newell.

Touchstone, part con man, part vaudevillian, part lecher, saves this “As You Like It” on a few occasions. Norm Sham is perfect here.

SDP’s summer Shakespeareans are mostly fine. There are some weak moments, but since the playwright seemed to write this piece as a lark, it’s easy for us to overlook some things.

Accolades to Newell, Sham, Morgan Chard as Rosalind, Patrick Cameron (a likable Orlando), Chris Kelly, Anne Roaldi, Steve Vaughn, Gerry Maher, Andrea Andolina, Arin Dandes, Jacob Bradley and others; fine minutes by singer Anthony Alcocer.

So, regarding “As You Like It”: You’ll like it.

Theater Review

“As You Like It”

3 stars

Shakespeare in Delaware Park through Aug. 14 at Shakespeare Hill, Delaware Park. Performances are at 7:30 p. m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Free. For information, visit www.shakespeareindelawarepark.org or call 856-4533.