Tuesday, July 12, 2011

WAS'T GOOD FOR THOU? -'All's Well That Ends Well' at The Delacorte Theatre

I've been around the bard a few times...

However, I resent the word 'bawd'. I prefer 'Shakeslut'.
I'll try anything Once. Twice. Thrice. 'Once you go Moor'...as they say.
But there's one thing that has always left my iambic pentameter perpetually soft.
All's Well That Ends Well.
I have never left a production of All's Well satisfied.

'How was't for thou?'

This summer's Shakespeare In The Park season is made up of two muy mystifying selections performed by a singular cast in repertory at the Public's Delacorte Theatre: All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure. Shakespearean scholars refer to these closely related, dysfunctional texts as his 'Problem Plays'.

Huh? Well, they end neither tragically nor comically, but invariably bathe the stage in a dense fog of vague melancholic pensivity. Yummy. However Scholars, and I mean this with the utmost disrespect and purposeful desecration of a staunch anti-traditionalist - leaving the dramatic knot untied is not at all problematic; it is recognizably modern.

And that is true of every nook and cranny of our world's stages. Even the campiest of glitter-infused, mind-numbing musical fare allows the audience the unequaled pleasure of imagining a unique future for the characters they love and loathe.
On the television front, The Sopranos ended with generic conversation over dinner...or so I hear. A decision critically heralded as the height of fictional innovation and critically derailed as a gutless copout of manicotti-esque proportions. And that has always been the case with All's Well That Ends Well...as well.

Admittedly, last year's Shakespeare In The Park season was an inexpensive, however inconvenient alternative to an ambient noise maker. I fell asleep during both the a'ight Winter's Tale and the exorbitantly overrated Merchant of Venice. I know what you're thinking. And it wasn't R.E.M sleep...

But this summer, the ballsy choice to put on two problem plays has proved an unlikely solution. All's Well That Ends Well races with the luxury and verve of a red Lamborghini and has all the hilarity and lustful dramatic qualities of its canonical counterparts. Is't possible?

Director Daniel Sullivan has returned to guide the All's wheel fresh off the Broadway transfer of his Merchant of Venice - only here, he thankfully loosens his oft totalitarian artistic grip. Apart from (L)afew misguided edits, Mr. Sullivan really allows the play to... play. You see, the park production of Merchant of Venice was less of a Shakespearean play than a letter to the editor - complete with entirely new scenes that changed story's meaning. But with All's Well That Ends Well, Sullivan has freed the play of his own artistic restriction and liberated his cast and creative team.

For the first time in several seasons, both Park plays are celebri-free. No stars here. Another 'problem' turned solution. For once, the audience is actually watching the play instead of engaging in mindless, obligatory discussions on their expectations of Anne Hathaway. Well, ok, there are two theatre seasoned theatre stars, John Cullum and Tanya Pinkins, but they hardly carry the name recognition of Meryl Streep or Al Pacino. And the shows are all the better for it. No more Pacino In The Park, for this guy!

Annie Parisse and Andre Holland lead the cast as the two sortakinda lovers Helena and Bertram. Their relationship is at the core of the play's frequent criticism. Helena loves Bertram, but he does not love her back (Asshole!). She goes so far as to trap him in a marriage (Bitch!), but he runs away to the country (Jerk!). Their love is never mutually reciprocated, and the play does not end happily ever after (...).

And did I have a great time or what!

Shockingly these two actors' performances caused me to believe that Bertram's overblown chauvinism and Helena's unforgivable manipulation was normal human behavior that I could and should empathize with. And I did - mostly because the production did not comment on their behavior; it displayed it. The more Shakespeare you read and see, you'll begin to notice that Bill thought very highly of his audiences. He let them make up their own minds.

Reg Rogers (who is also playing Lucio in M4M. Figures...) gives a kickass turn as Parolles, a pathetically comic military man. In the hands of the wrong actor, Rogers's technique could be too big and too weird, but he wears it very well, garnering many well-earned laughs. John Cullum's King of France is effortlessly regal and always brings a celebratory presence to the stage. The company at large is underutilized, but they bring their youthful energy to the tired floorboards, and support their castmates with openness and grace.

The visual aesthetic of Scott Pask's set and Jane Greenwood's costumes appears to be Western Europe during the onset of World War I, but don't quote me on that. The lack of period specificity and easy recognition establishes the design as sensorily evocative rather than a heavy handed cultural commentary, which moves the play along and brings clarity to the relatively complicated plot.

The two-level set bares a strong resemblance to a centuries old train station, but stripped of unnecessary flourish. For a play with near constant comings and goings, but never the stability that is so yearned for, a sparse railway stop is the ideal environment.

Like President Obama, my views on theatrical underscoring are 'evolving'. Tom Kitt, best known for his Tony Award winning score of Next To Normal, provides the music for All's Well, and I'll be damned if it wasn't effective. (Observe closely as the patient butchers music terminology) The expedient staccato forced an air of excitement into the actors' bodies and into the audience's hearts. The short interludes' crescendos were legitimately thrilling.

I went to the theatre that night with one thing on my mind: I was gonna getteth some. So I put on my manliest breeches, proudly displaying my strong Elizabethan calves, and strode on in. I play'd a little bard to get, flipped my fro back n' forth, you know...th'usual. But before I could even nonchalantly rattle off a sonnet, I was on the floor...and they were on top of me. Where did this newfound confidence and sexiness come from? This wasn't the same boring play I'd had before, but who was't? I knoweth not, nor do I care.
But let me tell ya, after All's Well That Ends Well, I needed a cigarette. -Johnny Oleksinski

'All's Well That Ends Well' walks the streets of The Delacorte Theatre in repertory with 'Measure for Measure' in Central Park through July 27.