This year’s offering for Shakespeare in the Park, a New York institution from The Public Theater, is a double ticket of cunning women tricking men into getting want they want—or what the men deserve. All’s Well That Ends Well, directed by the esteemed Daniel Sullivan, is a measured and thoughtful production set in World War I France. His eye for story and character—with a strong awareness of the audience and where to pull the strings—are conveyed with expertise by his cast, crew, and design team.
Sullivan captures the sweet innocence of Europe before the World Wars, a floaty, effortless elegance of civility and ignorance of the deep wounds that are to come. He employs Scott Pask to create a beautiful and functional set that has space for the actors to fill up: a long balcony decorated with intricate lattices doubles the vertical space, and it allows the bottom floor to have optional curtains while keeping the back open to see a serene pond. Leaving so much of the park visible gives the viewer a sense of controlled openness and possibilities. Small chandeliers hang from the top, and symmetrical staircases on either side make it easily accessible for the actors. Sets of chairs define the stage floor, and although there’s a surprise or two in Pask’s set, it is reasonably understated for a Shakespeare in the Park production. Tom Kitt scores the opening scene with delicate piano music, a waltz that encourages dancing yet simultaneously feels very proper and elite. Jane Greenwood costumes men in tails and ladies in flowing green dresses, dancers who savor the moment, probably thinking that there’s nothing better than this.
Standing out, painfully self-conscious and awkward, is Helena: clothed in a restricting conservative black dress, without a partner, on the verge of tears. Uncomfortable but trying to fit in, Annie Parisse gets caught in the group of dancers and anxiously tries to find an exit without making a scene. She manages to get to a chair on the sideline, only to be passed over as Bertram seeks a dance partner. She is the odd woman out, and she knows it.
But Helena isn’t a helpless victim: she is overcome by love, but she’s also sly and resolute—desperate and determined—and she has a touch of sass that goes a long way. She’s a little clumsy, but she has good intentions, and one of the best scenes is when she convinces the king to let her treat him—we all wait for his heartbeat as Parisse concentrates on her examination, even shushing the king. John Cullum as her patient is cheeky and whip smart, tinged with sad acceptance that his body is failing before his mind. Once he receives Helena’s potent medicine, he becomes vivacious and even more saucy, rolling in a wheelchair on a nurse’s lap with an open bottle of champagne. But with his new lease on life comes the full exercise of his power: Cullum’s authority and unadulterated anger at Bertram for refusing Helena’s choice of husband is lashing and so fearsome that André Holland slinks meekly back to his newly-acquired ball and chain.
Charming and handsome Bertram thinks it’s a joke at first. When he initially rejects her, the audience hisses and boos him, but Holland turns it around on us in semi-mock protestation, making our indignation into a fun moment. As the realization sinks in, we see his panic move through Holland’s whole body. When Parolles presents the enticing chance to run away to war, Bertram leaps at the opportunity, and despite a sexy kiss on his departure, he flees. We sympathize with him as Parolles sacrifices him to save his own skin, but when Bertram returns to Rousillion and lies about his supposed tryst with Diana, he slides back to where he was. Holland does an admirable job of creating a leading man that we really want to like but whose good qualities just can’t make up for the selfish ones.
Poor Bertram: he never had a chance with Parolles around. Outrageous, hilarious, and squirrelly, Reg Rogers’s cowardly soldier is an instant classic, with touches of affected language and mannerisms but also with the ability to make him a character. Outfitted in loud red pants, a navy military jacket, extraneous metals and sashes, and a well-manicured mustache, Rogers manages to strike the right balance between ridiculous and pitiful. And when the soldiers in his own camp reveal him for the cowardly lion he is, Parolles knows himself, and in his public shame he is shameless.
Luckily Bertram has a strong motherly influence, and Tonya Pinkins’s Countess has the moral compass that can try to keep her son on the better side of debauchery (or at least give him the sense to be embarrassed by his actions). She is clever and dignified, loving and understanding, and when Bertram and Helena independently leave her, she grieves for them equally, perhaps for Helena more. There are other great actors who leave their mark: Dakin Matthews takes a great turn as a loyal and fierce Lafew, while David Manis as Lavatch looks perfectly foolish in a foppish toupee and a silly grin.
The production weaves the design and the acting perfectly: Tom Kitt uses strings to signify high points in Helena’s emotional journey; Jane Greenwood dresses Diana and Helena in the same nightgown for the bed trick; Scott Pask’s muddy makeshift tents and Peter Kaczorowski’s blue-tinted lighting take us far out of the courts to the rural battle grounds; plenty of smoke, flares, crashes, and explosions add to the tension of war. Even the scent of cigar smoke lends masculine edge to the production. Superimposing the World War I setting on it makes for a fascinating and engaging first half, but the second half glosses over the reality, sticking closely to the boredom and the foolishness that fills the time. Sullivan doesn’t get an opportunity to dig in and show the truth of war, more because the play doesn’t allow for it without some manhandling of the text than his dismissal of it. It’s hard to show the impact the Great War had on Europe with a text from Elizabethan-Jacobean England, but Sullivan uses the framework nicely.
Sullivan is the master of seducing an audience, sharpening emotions and bringing us right to the edge of the fourth wall with a poignant conclusion. And this is no exception. Diana chooses a husband, to better success than her predecessor, and Helena finally gets her dance, and we walk away satisfied.