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June 30, 2011 5:29 pm

All’s Well That Ends Well/ Measure for Measure, Delacorte Theatre, New York

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All's Well That Ends Well

Reg Rogers (left) and Carson Elrod in 'All's Well That Ends Well'

For its season of free Shakespeare in Central Park, the Public Theater has a trick up its sleeve: a bed trick, to be precise. Its two-work repertory consists of the dark comedies in which the device appears: Measure for Measure, in which Angelo expects to have sex with Isabella, only to encounter Mariana instead; and All’s Well That Ends Well, in which Bertram couples not with Diana but with Helena, thus consummating an arranged marriage he had scorned.

Sex, however, does not equal sexy. The steamiest moments in All’s Well, in a not especially revealing staging by Daniel Sullivan, came early, when Reg Rogers’ delightful, decadent Parolles bantered with Helena about the nature of virginity. I have never heard Parolles’s disgust for it – he compares it to “a wither’d pear” – uttered so wittily.

I believed Bertram’s dislike of Helena – she has won the right to him after curing the King of France of a fistula – more than her ardour towards him. It is as if Annie Parisse, her interpreter here, were more in love with the idea of him than the physical fact of him. Some reviewers have found Andre Holland’s Bertram bland; I found his I’m-just-not-that-into-you approach defensible.

I was never unhappy to see Parisse and Holland collide on Manhattan’s largest outdoor stage. Over the past few seasons, the actors have staked their claims to larger spotlights, she in the premiere of Clybourne Park and he in The Brother/Sister Plays .

Production elements help enliven the evening. Scott Pask’s two-level arcade set is elegant. Tom Kitt’s incidental music does not squash Shakespeare’s poetry and Jane Greenwood’s suits, gowns and military uniforms convey the mood of Europe circa 1911, just before the old order exploded.

3 stars

Shades of the old order are also evident in the Public Theatre’s choosing to do Measure for Measure. I have seen at least five productions of it at the Delacorte, the finest starring Meryl Streep as Isabella. But Streepian star wattage has, oddly, not lit up Measure onscreen. Just as well: over the past decade, so many Shakespeare plays have been committed to celluloid that I would applaud a moratorium on “Tights! Camera! Action!”

Repertory companies, meanwhile, cannot get enough of this work, in which the pious Angelo, temporarily ruling Vienna instead of the Duke, clamps down on the sex trade. David Esbjornson’s production, with its emphasis on the cost of urban depravity, put me in mind of recent news stories reporting that even places such as Amsterdam are clamping down on vice, not to mention bulletins this week that suggested Shakespeare was perhaps not averse to the marijuana pipe.

Visually, the production may overdo the play’s dark heart, with black demons wafting about the stage. But the performers, especially the fierce Isabella of Danai Gurira, lend the language lilt.

3 stars

Public Theater

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