Shakespeare in the Park
This is no minute achievement for a play in general, let alone one that's among Shakespeare's least regarded. Barely staged for the first few hundred years following its premiere, and still not among his more performed works, All's Well That Ends Well has been deemed one of the "problem plays" for the same reason that Sullivan and his excellent company, led by Annie Parisse and André Holland, make it seem so right: It's rarely easy to determine whether what you're seeing is positive or negative, and whether the characters experiencing it can (or should) recognize it as either in any event.
In Central Park, on an unapologetically simplistic, Globe Theatre-y set by Scott Pask (with two levels, two staircases, thin curtains, and only representative set pieces occasionally brought in), Sullivan extracts from the story's consistent sorrow a fizzy tribute to the joys of having anything at all, and from the comedy the corrosive sense that everything else around seems to be in bad shape. The result is a production that offers no distinct highs or lows to speak of, but maintains a consistent level of deep, usually unspeakable, feeling from beginning to end. You hardly miss the peaks and valleys of Shakespeare's typically deployed outrageous fortune in this environment.
Without focusing on the extremes that productions of this play so often skirt, you can easily devote more of your attention to the plight of Helena (Parisse). She's deeply in love with Bertram (Holland), the son of her recently widowed guardian, the Countess of Rousillion (Tonya Pinkins), but is hopelessly out of his class and hardly loved by him in return. Helena follows Bertram to France, where she makes a bargain with the ailing king (a fine John Cullum): If she cures him, he will grant her the hand of any eligible bachelor she desires. He agrees and she succeeds, of course demanding the unwilling Bertram in exchange.
But even here, there are no explosions. Parisse's Helena is a staunch realist; she makes a show of choosing Bertram (and breaking, or at least tormenting, a dozen other male hearts in the interim), but not a spectacle. She trudges slowly, smiles uncertainly, and points demurely, all but wearing her unworthiness on her sleeve. Holland's response is wonderfully carved as well: a deep laugh that's met with such stony seriousness, it morphs before your eyes into the terror that Bertram will actually have to go through with this to maintain his relationship with the king he wants to be seen as favoring. Helena's trepidation may be endearing to us, but how can Bertram love a woman neither he nor she sees as his equal?
The rest of the production, then, takes on an unusual Taming of the Shrew aesthetic, as Helena and Bertram gradually realize they belong together. This is a fascinating solution for the oddly dark tone of the play, justifying their often indefensible actions toward each other (most centrally, Helena's tricking Bertram into consummating their marriage to keep him to his hastily given word), while also balancing the back alleys of the story that see the Countess disintegrating as both her cherished children disappear on the Italian battle front. (Pinkins, if too sturdy to convince as the advanced age Jane Greenwood's costumes and Tom Watson's wig make her look, is highly affecting in the role.)
The only casualties are the comic characters, whose impact has been flattened along with the normalizing of the rest of the drama. Neither Bertram's self-serving soldier comrade, Parolles (Reg Rogers), nor the countess's aide de camp, Levatch (David Manis), derive the hearty laughs these characters are capable of eliciting. Except for his first scene, in which Parolles chides Helena for her lingering virginity, Rogers layers most of his lines with dark anguish that doesn't let this destined-for-a-fall, vainglorious nitwit earn quite the thumping he deserves when his troopmates force feed him his own behavioral castor oil. (Michael Hayden and Lorenzo Pisoni strike the proper, stately tormenting notes as Parolles's captors and Bertram's friends.)
Clowning is a small sacrifice for narrative and emotional clarity, however. There's even one unexpected new pleasure: Kristen Connolly, who plays Diana, the girl Bertram woos in Florence and who plays a vital role in his undoing. Sexy, saucy, and strong, she takes command of the second half of the evening, and emerges as a dynamic force for truth in a role that doesn't always make a stinging impression. But when she addresses the audience with her hands adorning her hips, in firm defiance of Bertram's advances while reasserting her position in the universal sisterhood, you won't be able to take your eyes off her. Nor will you be able to wipe her from your mind afterward. Like the rest of this All's Well That Ends Well, she makes a lasting, lustrous impression.
All's Well That Ends Well