Both director Mark Lamos and actor Brian Bedford, who is playing the romantic cynic Jacques, have visited the play before. Lamos staged it 20 years back while the artistic director of Hartford Stage, and Bedford essayed Jacques when a much younger man, in a 1979 Stratford Ontario mounting, in which Maggie Smith played heroine Rosalind.
"The first time I directed it, I felt I didn't quite get it all," said Lamos while sitting in a cement corridor beneath the raked seating of the Delacorte Theatre. (A storm has chased everyone underground.) "I wanted to have a chance to do it again. The first time I did it was much more conceptual. I remember feeling while we working on it that it was trying to break the bonds of the concept and just breathe and be as simple as it is. So, it was a question of getting back to that."
"I feel we've unlocked the beauty and comedy of the play," continued Lamos, speaking of Central Park outing. "It's a very gentle play. One of the challenges of the play really is that its narrative drive all but stops an hour into it. The story actually is held in abeyance once we get to the forest of Arden. You're dealing with, instead of an ongoing narrative, a series on contrasting scenes about love and imagination and stretching your belief to accept the impossible." As for Bedford, one of the few North American actors who has devoted his career almost exclusively to the classical canon, a second sally at Jacques was a natural choice. "That's what's wonderful about having a life in the classical theatre," he said. "You can play a part you've played 30 years ago, and you can see it completely differently. You've grown into it."
He was reminded of his first go-around the moment he was offered the play. "I was flying out to California and I bought the Oxford Shakespeare to have a little study of the play. And in the book's history of the play, it said, 'And at Stratford—Ontario, Maggie Smith was an incandescent Rosalind and Brian Bedford was a young, dashing Jacques.' So, here I am now, doing an old, dashing Jacques."
The show's Rosalind (one of the great "breeches" roles the Bard wrote, and considered by many to be the most challenging female part in Shakespeare's catalogue) is Lynn Collins, who—while she lacks the rows of credits Lamos and Bedford boast—is doing well enough for a 26-year old. She played Ophelia opposite Liev Schreiber's Hamlet Off-Broadway; Juliet at the Ahmanson Theatre; and Portia in a 2004 film version of The Merchant of Venice, which starred Al Pacino as Shylock. (Though she has not yet acted in Twelfth Night, her given first name does happen to be Viola.) Collins was on a short list of candidates compiled by Lamos and former Public Theater producer George C. Wolfe. Having done so much Shakespeare, Collins was initially hesitant. "After 'The Merchant of Venice,' I thought maybe I'd back away from classical stuff and do some more modern things, to give my career a sense of being well rounded," she explained. "But then, I thought, that's silly. Everything you do is always going to be different from any of the other roles you play."
She admitted that the part was proving more exhausting than her previous assignments. "I feel it's a lot more material. It feels like a marathon, like I'm running my butt off. But, I'm having a blast. She's such a lovely girl in love, who through her love blossoms. Rosalind's journey, through having this mask as a boy, is like a wholesome marriage of the masculine and feminine."
Both Collins and Bedford are making their Central Park debut—a remarkable circumstance in Bedford's case, given the breadth and length of his career. He is glad to have finally had the opportunity, however.
"I don't have the words to quite communicate what it is to play in the park," he said. "It is the most extraordinary experience. It's really like the quintessential New York experience. I've never done it. I've never acted in the open air. It goes beyond even doing Shakespeare. It's the range of the audience. You have brainy, academic people who understand every word of this play, and you have kids who have never heard of Shakespeare. The audiences must be the nearest thing today to what Shakespeare's audiences were."