The Playbill cover for the 2011 season of New York City’s Shakespeare in the Park makes a cheeky attempt to sex up this year’s challenging program from The Public Theater: Shakespeare in bed, the cover teases, above an image of what used to be called a matrimonial bed and is now more inclusively known as a double. To be sure, both All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure For Measure involve instances of marital challenges and false representation under the sheets. But the truth, available for discovery in rotation under the starry skies of New York’s Central Park between now and July 30, is that these two, less frequently performed plays in the Bard’s canon are made of much more rumpled stuff. There’s a reason scholars classify them as ”problem” plays: They don’t fit comfortably into categories of comedy or tragedy, history or romance; they deal with societal problems; and, as director Daniel Sullivan’s sober and inward-looking new production of All’s Well That Ends Well demonstrates, they’re problems to stage with satisfying effect.
The story of the good and humbly born Helena (Annie Parisse), who loves the shallow and nobly born Bertram (Andre Holland) despite his boorish skirt-chasing and general indifference to her, has been a psychological conundrum and an argument starter for centuries: Helena ”wins” Betram in marriage as a reward for curing the ailments of the King of France (John Cullum), only to have her cowardly husband race away to war rather than bed her. Eventually, after one Shakespearean thing and another, she ”wins” him back for a dubious happy ending, but only after an elaborate ruse that involves slipping under cover of darkness into the bed the cheating cad believes he is sharing with a young virgin (Kristen Connolly) and then faking her own death. There is no little ringing irony in the play’s title.
As a result, there’s also an extra challenge thrown down to any director who stages a new production. The choice of Sullivan is a good one: One of New York’s leading directors, he created a bracingly tough production of The Merchant of Venice on the same stage last summer (with sparks contributed by the star power of Al Pacino as Shylock and star-is-born revelation of Lily Rabe as Portia), making him a good match for the ornery material of All’s Well. And to further sharpen the edges of the 400-year-old material, Sullivan provocatively sets the action in and around the era of World War I — a time, we can interpolate, when women’s roles, rights, and societal boundaries were changing. (Another bonus: the women are treated to dresses of whispery, cusp-of-fashion beauty from costume designer Jane Greenwood.)
Within such a time frame, reinforced by set design by Scott Pask featuring a trestle of metallic grillwork suggestive of railroads and related modern wonders of turn-of-the-century mass production, each player appears to be bush-whacking a different path through the complications. (They’re fine actors all, but none carry the focal-point star power of a Pacino or Streep, in a play that could use some oomph.) Parisse gives her Helena the air of a sad, thin young Italian widow; Holland makes his Bertram as a more of a spoiled young rich kid than a caddish player. Stalwart, 81-year-old Cullum is in fine, easy command as the King of France, cured of a wasting ailment by Helena, and he’s matched in elderly wisdom by Dakin Matthews as Lafew, an old lord; Tonya Pinkins (Caroline, or Change) plays Bertram’s mother more like The Cosby Show‘s Clair Huxtable than the Countess of Rousillion she is.
In such a stew, Reg Rogers’ elaborately broad interpretation of Parolles, Bertram’s foppish hanger-on, becomes a bit more of a centerpiece than one might desire. Parolles is a champion bulls—er, a coward, and a phony, quite transparently so. (Parolles, along with Lavatch the clown, played by David Manis, count as the traditional comic relief.) To this framework, stage veteran Rogers adds topnotes of Bullwinkle, Peter Sellers, and Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion. The result is diverting, but makes the uneasy, unsettled, altogether ominous ”happy” ending all the more wobbly. As the King observes, ”All yet seems well, and if it end so meet, The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet.” B-