Two of William Shakespeare’s plays deemed as “troubled” in the canon have been paired by the Public Theater to play in repertory in the Delacorte Theater for the free Shakespeare in the Park through Saturday, July 30. Daniel Sullivan is at the helm for “All’s Well That Ends Well” and David Esbjornson guides the same company of actors through “Measure for Measure.” How interesting that both plays’ heroines have to deceive less-than-worthy lovers in order to win them. It gives them, if not a common theme, then a common course showing how women once depended on men to validate their worth in society. Bardologists will likely want to see both, but for more satisfying entertainment you don’t want to miss “Measure for Measure.”
"All’s Well That Ends Well"
It’s more than the rapid and unpredictable shifts of mood that define the characters who wend their way through “All’s Well That Ends Well.” A balmy summer evening and a cooling breeze (you can depend upon this in the park) helps one survive this mostly irksome and cynical play. With its sullen emphasis on class distinctions and its testy morality, it is also a sour comedy stubbornly devoid of comedy. With that said, Sullivan’s cautiously reverential direction has its effective and striking moments.
One can sense that Sullivan, who directed the recently acclaimed “The Merchant of Venice” with Al Pacino, can be lauded for making somewhat palatable the absurd plot as it follows the exploits of a young, common girl in love with a wealthy and titled nobleman. It has a denouement and resolve that makes you want to shout out to her, “He’s not worth it.” “He” is the spoiled and snobby Bertram, the Count of Rossillion, played appropriately without charm but plenty of disdain for those beneath his station by Andre Holland.
One has to work hard to care much for the shrewdly engineered machinations of the spunky Helena (Annie Parisse). Although attractive, she also looks much older than Holland and affects an aura of maturity that belies her actions. Perhaps because of the detached nonchalance placed on the play’s idiotic and implausible plot contrivances, it almost doesn’t seem to matter whether or not she succeeds in her impassioned pursuit of Bertram. He is basically a self-centered fool who decides to desert her and go off to fight in a foreign war rather than take her to bed.
The plot reaches the ludicrous zenith as Helena exasperates the King of France (played with nonplussed agreeability by veteran actor John Cullum) with her incomprehensible, riddle-soaked explanation of the convoluted events that lead to the play’s conclusion. Thankfully, the play generously accommodates a wonderfully comical (think Peter Sellers) Reg Rogers as the incorrigibly duplicitous Parroles, one of Bertram’s followers.
As the smarts are in short supply, it is a pleasure to watch Dakin Matthews look about and consider the pitifully few options and the abounding obstacles he has to contend with in his role as Lafew, the old lord and trusty friend of the Countess of Rossillion, as effectively played by Tonya Pinkins. Scott Pask’s scenic design, a black bridge-like construction flanked by stairs and a pair of gates, allows all those who enter and exit to prove that “All’s Well That Ends Well,” even if it takes almost three laborious hours.
"Measure for Measure"
In “Measure for Measure,” Shakespeare asks us to think about what can happen to a morally complacent society when it allows its leaders to abuse their power and instill their own set of values though the manipulation of the law. Sound familiar? The often disastrous effects of self-righteousness are such that they may be applied to people of any culture and time. Yes, this is another classic play that seems tailored to our needs at the moment. Perhaps one of the Bard’s most unpleasant, demanding, and patience-requiring comedies, it harbors more demoralized, unsavory, and unsympathetic principal characters than are usually found in one story.
Set in Vienna, known to Shakespeare as the sin city of the western world, director David Esbjornson show us just how sinful it was/is with a bevy of black masked and attired devils literally coming up from hell and romping through and engaging in the action. That bit of pretension aside, the play opens with the eye-opening pleasures afforded by the local establishment of questionable repute. It is an early sign that the pimps, bawds, and brawlers on view will be the first to be condemned by a more aggressive wave of moral and ethical directives.
Esbjornson’s vision is certainly specific if also partially surreal in its deviltry. Our attention is immediately drawn to the questionable activities of Angelo (Michael Hayden), a high-minded deputy in the service of the Duke of Vienna (Lorenzo Pisoni). Angelo is trying to reinstate antiquated statutes in order to reform a city where “liberty plucks justice by the nose.” We have seen from the start that this open city is a heady center for rash political maneuvers and sexual intrigue.
There is now a death penalty for fornication, with the first victim being the young and noble Claudio (Andre Holland). Though intent on marrying his fiancee — the beloved and very pregnant Juliet (Kristen Connolly) — he is now guilty of a crime. And crimes of the heart multiply: Angelo lusts after Isabella (Danai Gurira), a sister of Claudio about to enter a nunnery. The kindly Duke, in the guise of a snooping Monk, becomes infatuated with Isabella. Add to this Angelo’s jilted fiancee, Mariana (Annie Parisse); Lucio, a blundering and obnoxious trouble-maker (Reg Rogers); Mistress Overdone, a low-life but lovable bawd (Tonya Pinkins); and Pompey, her clownish pimp (Carson Elrod). Here you have another of Shakespeare’s more scrupulously convoluted, yet seriously intended comedies.
Isabella is portrayed with affecting passion and for all its rhetorical purity and sense of purpose by Gurira. Pisoni appears to be having a great time infesting a little playfulness into his own impersonation helping to make him a very appealing provocateur. Hayden is superb as the righteous and lustful Angelo, especially in his aggressive confrontations with Isabella, his willingness to go beyond where his words take him.
Mistress Overdone is something to be relished in the hands of Pinkins. Parisse fares better in this play as the jilted Mariana. As Pompey the pimp, Elrod makes one think of Puck, as he sprints through the action with a guileless ability to either talk or squirm out of a predicament. The minor characters also deliver quite a bit of spark to the proceedings: Lucas Caleb Rooney is quite funny as a prisoner who is too drunk to attend his own execution.
One of the play’s most interesting characters, perhaps because it is being played by a superb John Cullum, is Angelo’s “yes man,” Escalus. I strongly urge you to spend an evening seeing how entertainingly Shakespeare combines the politics of romance with the romance of politics while you also take relish in the way it has been all put together by director Esbjornson.
“All’s Well That Ends Well” in repertory with “Measure for Measure,” Delacorte Theater in Central Park (accessible by entering at 81st Street and Central Park West or at 79th Street and Fifth Avenue. Tickets to Shakespeare in the Park are free and are distributed two per person at the theater at 1 p.m. the day of the show. The Public Theater is again offering free tickets at www.shakespeareinthepark.org.