Those first few minutes in a murmuring, expectant theater are always slightly awkward ones. On your lap lie the program notes that try to welcome you a little too carefully into the play’s plot, before you looms the silent set, a sort of teasing appetizer. Looking out onto its breathtaking lines and lacquered Japanese platforms, the striking minimalist set of Fair Ladies at a Game of Poem Cards, this year’s annual student production at the Berlind, seemed to promise quite a bellyful. But like much of Princeton’s student theater, Fair Ladies left me feeling vaguely unsatisfied.

Fair Ladies is a modern adaptation of an early eighteenth-century play by “Japan’s Shakespeare,” Chikamatsu Monzaemon. The comparison seems apt enough considering the play’s structural similarities to Shakespeare’s early comedies: it has all the comic situational misunderstandings and pure, inextinguishable young love bucking against the constraints of authority with which a Western, Shakespeare-doting audience can identify. Peter Oswald, the playwright-in-residence at London’s Shakespeare Globe Theater, further teases out and amplifies these Elizabethan elements and makes the rather dry text of the play that much more familiar and accessible.

Set in early modern imperial Japan, the play’s action revolves around two young samurai, Takiguchi (Jed Peterson ’06) and Yoshitsugu (John P. Doherty ’06), and their ill fated trysts with two of the Empresses’s (Ronit Rubinstein ’05) young maids of honor, Yokobue (Irene Lucio ’07) and Karumo (Alex Ripp ’08). Torn apart by the machinations of the selfish and conniving ward of the maids, Lord Morotaka (Arthur Burkle ’07), the young lovers must overcome years of hardship, ostracism, and separation to find each other again.

Staged by New York director Erica Schmidt, the production sparkles. The set is a stunning harmony of sharp lines and unadorned colored planes. Downstage, a simple wooden dock links two gold lacquered slabs to a rippling pond. Its undulations are projected upstage onto the giant Japanese paper screens that slide away to reveal a strip of blinding white sand and a dark plane cutting diagonally across the illumined background. The exquisite lighting, shuttling effortlessly from the crisp sunlight of early autumn to cool moonlight to the violence of a winter blizzard, plays easily with the vastness of the Berlind stage and splashes it with bursts of color that accent the set’s beautiful austerity. Andrew Sherman’s sound design echoes the exact, carefully chiseled Suzuki movements of the actors, giving both a crisp perfection and seamless fluidity to individual scenes and the play as a whole.

With some notable exceptions, however, the glossy professionalism of this production undermined itself simply by overreaching the capacities of most of its actors. Its beautiful, masterly sheen made the otherwise standard student performances seem dull by comparison. The big budget expertise of the production unnaturally highlighted the trademarks of the amateur actor: poor projection and the crutches of exaggerated, coded pantomime to signify the staple emotions that work moderately well and even pass for good acting in the smaller, low key productions of Intime. Set against the demanding elegance of the stage’s sharp lines, voices died before reaching the fourth row, shallow gestures towards something deeper fell flat, collapsed, and lost themselves in the huge space.

But the professionalism of the production seems to have had an almost Darwinian effect, challenging its talent to rise to the raised standard and providing the nutrients necessary for some stellar performances. Rubinstein’s Empress easily filled the stage with her powerful voice and righteous maternal fury. Natural and graceful, Doherty consistently hit the perfect pitch and maintained it even as others wavered. Peterson’s simple, authoritative precision was captivating. Both convincingly captured the reserved essence of the proud, honor-bound stoicism and respectful diffidence of the seventeenth century samurai. Lucio, playing the young maiden Yokobue, was evocative, immediate, and a joy to watch.

Perhaps the production’s shortcomings are simply a matter of contrast between expectation and reality, between form and its content. Had it been under less glitzy circumstances, Fair Ladies, seen strictly as another student play, would have been far less prone to criticism. The Berlind production aimed so quixotically high and was so seamlessly and elegantly wrapped, however, that the contrast with its actual substance made its flaws that much more conspicuous and disappointing.

[Fair Ladies runs from Nov. 18-20 at the Berlind Theatre. Performances start at 8PM.]