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Royal Shakespeare at Park Avenue Armory

For a while in "As You Like It," it was hard not to fear for the rest of the Royal Shakespeare Company's ambitious five-play season at the Park Avenue Armory.

For most of the first half of this opening of the six-week repertory visit, the acting of this mostly young company was wildly uneven and stagy. This gave us lots of time to admire the intimate, extraordinary three-tiered theater and thrust stage built here to replicate the company's new home at Stratford-upon-Avon -- and a bit too much time to wonder about its justification.

Misgivings were banished before intermission, fortunately, when Forbes Masson, as the blissfully melancholy Jaques, wandered into the Forest of Arden with a worldly folk-pagan skepticism and an extravagant vocal range. This gender-bending romantic comedy about rustic love flourishing among unfairly banished nobility began to weave the foolishness more endearingly into the serious business. And joy eventually prevailed.

Michael Boyd, artistic director and the force behind this company's recent multiyear training program, has created a generous three-hour idyll, with plenty of pleasantly odd songs, bursts of increasingly visceral formal dances and strong homoerotic undercurrents in the roughhousing and gender disguises. The period begins as Elizabethan in the court and gets increasingly modern with the wooing and the winning.

Jonjo O'Neill is impetuous, lyrical and completely charming as Orlando, cut out of his legacy by his selfish older brother (Charles Aitkin, cartoon-evil at first, but more believable as the character sees the light). Katy Stephens has a phony girlishness as Rosalind in the court scenes, but grows formidable and appealing when disguised as a man. Mariah Gale has a lusty sweetness as her cousin Celia, and Richard Katz makes an elegantly mad Touchstone, the fool, with an unhinged straitjacket and haunted eyes.

The theater feels cozy with 975 seats and dark wood trim. The three-sided stage is backed by a white-on-white checkerboard wall that flips out squares for windows and for views of the bramble of a particularly gnarled Arden. Boyd overdoes the flatulence jokes, pratfalls and dropped trousers, but he does have a lovely way with trapdoors.

WHAT "As You Like It"

WHERE Park Avenue Armory, Park Avenue at 67th Street

INFO $81.50-$250; 212-721- 6500;

BOTTOM LINE Uneven but youthful, high-spirited Shakespeare

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