Saturday, July 2, 2011

Bed Tricks in Central Park

Cullum and Parisse in All's Well That Ends Well (photo by Joan Marcus)
All’s Well That Ends Well
With Kristen Connolly, John Cullum, Carson Elrod, Michael Hayden, Andre Holland, Dakin Matthews, Annie Parisse, Lorenzo Pisoni, Reg Rogers
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Opened June 25; closes July 27, 2011 Cullum and Parisse in Measure for Measure (photo by Joan Marcus)
Measure for Measure
With John Cullum, Carson Elrod, Danai Gurira, Michael Hayden, Andre Holland, Dakin Matthews, Annie Parisse, Lorenzo Pisoni, Reg Rogers
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by David Esbjornson
Opened June 30; closes July 30, 2011
Delacorte Theatre, Central Park

The “bed trick,” in which Shakespeare asked his audiences to suspend their disbelief even more than usual, is the obvious connection between the two plays in Central Park this summer. But whereas All’s Well That Ends Well is among the Bard’s bumpiest rides, Measure for Measure may be his most cynically brilliant dissection of relationships: both comedies end in forced marriages, but whereas the end couplings of All’s Well are nominally happy, those paraded onstage at the end of Measure are tenuous at best.

Typically for Central Park, these stagings are a grab-bag of good and less able actors fighting it out for Delacorte Theater supremacy, with each director contributing ready-made visual intrusions to give audiences what they pay for. Daniel Sullivan’s All’s Well has a stateliness that works in the scenes between the heroine Helena and her protector, the Countess of Rousillion, along with the ailing King of France, but less well with her beloved Bertram (who loathes her) and his cowardly sycophant Parolles (who gets his). David Esbjornson’s Measure, by contrast, begins with black-clad and horned extras wearing devil’s masks who are haunting Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, and apparently prompt him to leave his city, which is becoming morally corrupt.

The broad comedy subplot of All’s Well, which brings Parolles to his knees, is overdone by Sullivan, who allows Reg Rogers to mug shamelessly, as does Esbjornson, who lets Rogers play Measure’s Lucio as Parolles’ campy double. That Rogers gets big laughs in both roles is disheartening.

Sullivan’s mostly sensible directing of All’s Well is helped by Tom Kitt’s subtle chamber music, Jane Greenwood’s appropriate costumes and Peter Kaczorowski’s elegant lighting. Too bad this Measure never balances the inherent difficulties in one of Shakespeare’s most problematic plays: Esbjornson goes for dramatic shortcuts by repeatedly bringing his horned demons back, while John Gromada’s kitschy horror-movie score and Elizabeth Hope Clancy’s nondescript costumes are no match for Kaczorowski’s stark lighting.

Like last summer, performers are in both productions, except for Danai Gurira, who plays Measure’s heroine Isabella with little gracefulness or charm, and who (like Katharine Waterston in a recent Measure directed by Arin Arbus) speaks in a dully one-note manner. Carson Ellrod shows Reg Rogers that it’s possible to overdo comic parts correctly, as his Interpreter in All’s Well and Pompey in Measure happily reveal (the night I attended, Ellrod humorously engaged in mock-hero worship of audience member Bill Irwin).

Vet John Cullum makes a regal King in All’s Well and a dignified Escalus in Measure, the accomplished Annie Parisse decently enacts All’s Well’s Helena and Measure’s Mariana, and reliable Dakin Matthews makes the most of his supporting roles. While Michael Hayden and Lorenzo Pisoni impress as the King’s sons in All’s Well and Hayden brings a welcome gravity to Measure’s villainous hypocrite Alberto, Pisoni fails to make that play’s Duke (in and out of disguise as a friar) believably complex. And too bad Andre Holland does little with pivotal parts: All’s Well’s Bertram and Measure’s Claudio.

While neither production takes the full measure of Shakespeare, for many in the audience, a beautiful summer night under the stars at the Delacorte is usually enough.

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