If life was categorized as a Shakespearean work, it would probably be called a “problem play”—so complicated with its moods and turns of events that it cannot be neatly deemed a comedy or tragedy. Unlike this year’s Shakespeare in the Park production of All’s Well That End’s Well, however, life probably contains less grand battles and fanciful costuming. There also isn’t a daily mob of spectators waiting to watch your life unfold.
All’s Well That Ends Well, a problem play directed by Daniel Sullivan, opened Saturday, June 25, to jump-start the 2011 Shakespeare in the Park season. Along with Measure for Measure, directed by David Esbjornson, the play is running in repertory with the same company of actors through Saturday, July 30, at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater.
Written at the start of the 1600s, All’s Well is a story ahead of its time, containing several character types and elements that are relatable today. There are buffoonish men, philandering men, women dumb enough to love them, and women smart enough to reject them. And human nature being what it is, many of the interactions in All’s Well can actually be found at any given bar during a Thursday happy hour.
The play begins with Bertram (André Holland), the Count of Rousillion, and Helena (Annie Parisse), the commoner who is in love with him. Helena is the daughter of a recently deceased famous physician, and she is a charge to Bertram’s mother, the Countess (Tonya Pinkins). When Bertram’s father dies, he travels to Paris to live as ward to the King of France (John Cullum), who has an incurable sickness. A war is going on between Austria and Florence at the time, and Bertram desperately wants to fight but is too young. Parolles (Reg Rogers), a cocky coward who is often flailing his limbs about, is his companion.
In order to see her beloved Bertram again, Helena goes to Paris with one of her father’s remedies in hand. When she appears at court, she strikes a deal with the King. If the supposed cure works, she gets to marry any man of her choosing; if it doesn’t, she dies. When the King is revived, of course she chooses Bertram as her husband, but he adamantly refuses because she is of “low birth” and he is a nobleman. To escape his marriage, Bertram flees to the Tuscan wars.
Helena finds Bertram’s cold letter, stating that he will only consider her his wife when she wears his family ring and becomes pregnant with his child—something obviously impossible since they are now separated and Bertram vows to never return to France. Crushed but determined, Helena blames herself for driving him away and sets off on a pilgrimage. Meanwhile, Bertram, successful in battle, has become well respected among the other soldiers who play a trick on Parolles to prove he’s a scoundrel.
When Helena arrives in Florence, she meets a widow (Caitlin O’Connell) and one of her daughters, Diana (Kristen Connolly), whom Bertram is trying to seduce. Diana acts as Helena’s counterpart in a way, since Diana doesn’t need or seek a man’s attention for affirmation. Helena comes up with a scheme to make a body switch with Diana, ultimately getting Bertram’s ring and bearing his child. For good measure, she also fakes her own death.
All’s Well shows the very chauvinistic and sexually aggressive side of men, with lines like “virginity is against nature,” and “A man who’s married is a man who’s marred.” It also has something that drives the plot of several Hollywood romantic comedies, which is a smart and capable leading lady wasting her efforts on making a jerk love her.
The wood stage is very minimal, with a few chairs and a bridge walkway in the background. The set comes alive and is fully utilized during battle scenes. Smoke and light rise up, and soldiers run, jump and flee throughout the entire space. Intricate details define the costuming, which are made up of green party dresses, neatly tailored jackets, battle uniforms, and the demure, sometimes frumpy, outfits of Helena.
What’s well done about All’s Well is how effectively the director and actors weave together comedic moments with moments of despair and betrayal—as well as serious characters with those who ridiculously play for laughs. As in life, it jumps from happy to sad to funny, and the range of people encountered is very broad. All’s Well mimics these quick changes and does it in a believable way. In fact, you probably know people who match every character.
On the surface, the story is quite sad. A good woman is in love with a man who wants nothing to do with her; and she basically has to trick him into a devoted marriage. But you feel her desperation and root for her success and the success of the rest of the characters. Noblemen act like barbarians and fools and it’s the lowly that show more constraint and higher morality.
“Good is good without the name,” proclaims the King of France when trying to convince Bertram of Helena’s worth, despite her low birth rank. This may be true, but there is another name we can associate with “good,” and that’s All’s Well That Ends Well at Shakespeare in the Park.
For ticket information and performance schedule, visit www.shakespeareinthepark.org or call 212-539-8750. The Delacorte Theater is accessible via the 81st Street and Central Park West, or 79th Street and Fifth Avenue entrance.
Photos by Joan Marcus
The full cast includes Bill Army, Kristen Connolly, John Cullum, Carson Elrod, Lauren Ferguson, Joe Forbrich, Michael Hayden, Edena Hines, André Holland, Jordan Lund, David Manis, Zoey Martinson, Dakin Matthews, Adam McNulty, Katie Meister, Charlie Francis Murphy, Caitlin O’Connell, Annie Parisse, Tonya Pinkins, Lorenzo Pisoni, Maudlin, Aleque Reid, Reg Rogers, Lucas Caleb Rooney, Benjamin Thys, Brendan Titley, Katie Wieland, and Roger Yeh.