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Shakespeare in the Park: All's Well That Ends Well

Given director Daniel Sullivan’s surprising use of comedy in last year’s production of Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare in the Park, I thought for sure he would treat audiences to a more surprising interpretation of All’s Well That Ends Well, which runs through July along with Measure for Measure, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. However, Sullivan’s rendition swings wildly between hammy and flat. The few moments of good acting (mostly from Annie Parisse as Helena, Dakin Matthews as Lafew and Carson Elrod as the highly entertaining Interpreter) gets lost in the shuffle. Those with a comedic role play up their parts to the point of being utterly obnoxious: the clown is too buffoonish, the braggart Parolles revels way too much in his swaggering Frenchiness, and Bertram’s comic timing and intonations are more in line with an ABC sitcom than with Shakespeare.

If you don’t know the premise of All’s Well, by all means don’t do anything silly like actually read it. While I’m a Shakespeare fan through and through and I’ve read my fair share, I’ve never been tempted to plod through the inane plot of All’s Well. The Public calls it a “fairytale for grown-ups,” which is a nice way of saying the plot is ludicrous and doesn’t make any sense. Of course, Shakespeare’s pulled off more with lesser material and wrote a number of truly silly plays that are nonetheless enjoyable. It’s still hard though to comprehend the grist for the mill here, namely Helena’s conniving man hunt for Bertram, whom she shamelessly trapped into marriage.

It goes like this: Helena, the poor daughter of an esteemed doctor, is raised by the Countess of Rousillon when her father dies. The Countess’ son is Bertram, and Helena is nuts about him. Bertram, on the other hand, couldn’t be less attracted to Helena, but that doesn’t stop her. She devises a plan to save the dying king of France with one of her father’s secret remedies, after he promises to give her any husband she wants. She chooses Bertram, who puts up quite a fuss, but ultimately he has no choice. Bertram then runs off to war to escape her. So Helena, devastated and desperate, teams up with Diana, a virgin in Italy who Bertram’s been trying to get into bed. Helena and Diana pull a switcheroo on Bertram and, with the clever use of a blindfold and dim lighting, get him to mistakenly sleep with Helena instead. Helena promptly gets pregnant and in front of the entire French court, forces Bertram into settling down with her. That’s the abridged version but  you get the idea.

All’s Well is one of Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays,” not because the plot has loads of problems but because no one can decide whether it ought to be a comedy or a tragedy. Technically speaking, a play is a comedy if it ends happily and a tragedy if it doesn’t. As that decision is largely left up to the director in this case, its classification is murky. That said, the ending is actually what Sullivan excels at, opting for neither comedy nor tragedy, leaving the cast in a strange, trance-like limbo instead. Neither the king nor the Countess or Bertram seem to know what has just happened after Helena reveals her crafty plot. It’s clear though that she succeeds in getting exactly what she wants, even if it was ill-gotten, and the play ends with her having the upper – and totally psychotic – hand. It’s a provocative choice, one that I wish was preceded by a play equally as stimulating.