Is there anything more glorious than an outdoor wedding in summertime? The bride blushing (and scheming and strategizing), the clueless horndog groom elaborately entrapped, and some fickle authority figure hovering over it all, hurling lightning bolts of moral censure at sexual chaos. Ah, marriage! It’s been an eventful season for the institution, with big wins (Kate and William, plus New York’s same-sex partners) roughly balancing out ugly losses (Weinergate, L’Affaire DSK, Schwarzenegger in The Germinator: Bastardization). Our culture appears to be in one of its periodic tizzies about the state of union and the practicability of monogamy, so what better moment for two sour, unlovable plays about wedlock—which is to say, about sex and love and justice and the power of the state—to take over the Delacorte?
All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure are, it seems safe to say, nobody’s favorite plays. Reductively, you could say they’re both comedies that aren’t funny, and tragedies that can’t commit. All’s Well is particularly galling, with its caddish leading man, Bertram (The Whipping Man’s Andre Holland), widely considered the most despicable nincompoop in the Shakespearean canon; its petulant, ossified, tin-eared monarch (John Cullum), whose well-intentioned intrusions into private lives only make matters worse; and its brilliant and infuriating heroine, Helena (Annie Parisse), whose single-minded goal (to marry Bertram, an openly feckless boy-man who does not and cannot love her, by any means necessary) looks suspiciously like sick obsession. “Welcome to Paris!” says Cullum’s King of France, gesturing mock-grandly from his sickbed with an arm hooked up to an IV (the toughest accessory to pull off, even in Paris).
This tableau—young women fluttering about the King’s person not to delight his eye or his appetites, but to regulate his body fluids and maintain his continence of whatever meager life-drippings are left in him—tells you everything you need to know about the show’s attitude towards romance. The king is dying (of “a fistula,” Shakespeare overinforms us—sexy, no?), and is at the very point of accepting his mortality with grace when Helena, daughter of a famous physician, cures him, and then claims Bertram as payment. The King instantly abandons his Zen balance and roars back to life with tyrannical zest. His rather eerie resurrection is All’s Well in a nutshell: a grotesque triumph of will over nature, with consequences deferred. Bertram doesn’t want to marry Helena? Tough shit: When the king says get married, you get married. And when you abandon your wife to go warring and wenching at the Tuscan battlefront, as Bertram does, well, you can bet it’s not going to end well. And it doesn’t: The real title of All’s Well ought to be The Ends Justify The Means.
How does all of this grim stuff jibe with director Daniel Sullivan’s trademark gentility, his bias for the wistful and lovely over the irksomely cynical, his gift for constructing orderly universes over rocky narrative terrain? Beautifully. Maybe even a little too beautifully, if I can be crabby about it. He’s never relied more heavily on manipulative musical underscoring; it often feels like emotional bullying, and, hell, maybe that’s the point. (His late-Edwardian setting suggests a world upheld mostly by pomp and norm, ready to capsize at any second.)
And Sullivan and Holland certainly deserve tremendous credit for rescuing Bertram from total ignominy: Here, he’s callow and cold, sure, but he’s also very young, innocently libidinous, and—let’s remember—not really in love with the woman he’s being forced to marry. Sullivan plays down Bertram’s complaint about Helena’s low social rank, and plays up their sibling-bond - they were raised together by Bertram’s birth-mother, the Countess of Rousillion (Tonya Pinkins, mostly just presiding here). No wonder the kid’s reluctant: The king’s basically making him marry his sister. Sullivan throws in a long, strange kiss to complicate things—what’s Bertram playing at? Does he feel anything for Helena or doesn’t he?—but he largely lets him off the hook. As for Helena: She’s closer to Henry V than Rosalind, an engine of self-selected destiny. Her goal set, she’ll pursue it to the end, or be damned. She’s insane, and Parisse, quietly, intensely, almost serial-killer-like, embraces that insanity.
As Helena moves heaven and earth to return Bertram to France and secure his devotion, he’s pulled in another direction by Helena’s opposite-monster, a Falstaffian braggart and pocket misogynist named Parolles (the very funny if somewhat repetitive Reg Rogers, who sounds like he’s studied, perhaps a little slavishly, old footage of Hans Conried). Parolles, whose name basically translates as “All Talk,” tutors Bertram in chest-thumping and bird-dogging, but he’s duly exposed as a fraud in the play’s most delightful sequence: A group of his fellow soldiers (led by the deft Carson Elrod) capture and blindfold Parolles, make him believe he’s in the clutches of the enemy, and then easily wring from him a stream of military secrets and personal confidences‚including a wholesale betrayal of Bertram. All bonds are suspect in All’s Well, and nowhere else do you get a better sense of Shakespeare as a man shotgun-married in his teens, who spent much of his adult life regretting (and writing about) the follies of youth but also interrogating the institutions that brought him such unhappiness. Sullivan ends on a ghostly note, with Bertram restored not-quite-happily to Helena, and another paternally administered, normatively enforced marriage in the offing. The new couple joins the dance, mutually neutralized by one another. The music’s lovely, but how long will it last?
Not long, if we see Measure of Measure (running in rep with All’s Well) as a continuation. David Esbjornson’s production feels, intentionally or not, like it was built on the smoking ruins of Sullivan’s. Unlike All’s Well, it’s not a charmer of a production, not by design and certainly not in execution. (Why do the Delacorte shows in second position to Sullivan’s always feel ramshackle by comparison?) Measure also contains a number of feckless male characters, though most of these are clowns and comic lowlifes, and it’s also presided over by a frustrating leader. Vincentio, Duke of Austria (Lorenzo Pisoni), has let his city go to seed. He knows he needs to clean up its thriving and pestilential red-light district, but he doesn’t want to be the buzzkill who flips on the lights and turns off the music. So he delegates the crackdown to the Draconian judge Angelo (Michael Hayden) and pretends to vanish on a diplomatic mission. In fact, the Duke’s still in town, moving amongst the rabble, Henry-like, in the guise of a humble friar, and monitoring the effects of Angelo’s edict that anyone proven to have had sex out of wedlock will be executed. Angelo’s hypocrisy can only be described as Congressional: While he’s preparing to lop off the head of Claudio (Holland), a man in love with and betrothed to the woman he impregnated, Angelo himself is the process of sexually blackmailing Claudio’s chaste sister (Danai Gurira): If she’ll sleep with him, he’ll spare her brother’s life. In a twist, Isabella would rather watch her brother die than go to bed with Angelo. (Little mystery there: Hayden plays the judge as not merely a prig and fake, but also a bore. Esbjornson might’ve relieved him of some of his evil finger-twiddling and interminable Act One speechmaking and done no injury to the show as a whole.)
Meanwhile, the low characters play out their own little seriocomedy, as the pimp Pompey (the nimble Elrod again), captured by the moronic constable Elbow (champion goofball David Manis), tries to take up a new career, as an executioner, in Angelo’s newly theocratic Vienna. (Lucas Caleb Rooney shows up in multiple libertine roles, and kills ’em all.) Finally, Reg Rogers returns as Lucio, chief louche of the Viennese stews, and our primary source of comic relief. We certainly need it: Not only are there no real good guys in Measure (as Pisoni’s day-saving Duke is a bit of a tool, and something of a coward besides), there aren’t even any terribly interesting characters, especially when Rogers, Manis, Rooney and Elrod are offstage. (The boldface names, Cullum and Pinkins, are mostly reduced to harrumphing and squealing, respectively.) Esbjornson’s bigger gambles—his temporally promiscuous costumery, leather fetish-gear, creeping gimp-demons—feel halfhearted and awkward. By the end of the show, he seems to have found a satisfyingly semi-absurd rhythm, but he never quite decides what to do with Gurira’s Isabella. A novice and budding misanthrope, she’s supposed to be suspended uneasily between natural carnality and fiercely chosen chastity. But Esbjornson seems unwilling to molest her or muck her up. In the end, she’s simply stranded in the middle of the stage, and we’re stranded with her.
If all of this sounds a little unsatisfying, a little unromantic, a little too citified and psychoanalytic and un-summery, I highly recommend a getaway to Arden—or, if that’s too far, Connecticut. Starting this weekend, Shakespeare on the Sound will be remounting its absolutely effervescent production of Much Ado About Nothing (first launched June 16 in Norwalk), which has been directed with unremitting joy by Joanna Settles (In Darfur). Much Ado is a comedy from an early, brighter chapter in Shakespeare’s canon, when darkness, while visible, wasn’t ascendant or all-enveloping, and marriage was nothing but the sparkly unicorn-sticker at the end of a love note. Clambering gleefully over a tricked-out truck whose flatbed forms the primary playing space, the bantering youngfolk of Much Ado—sparring partners Benedick (Gregory Wooddell) and Beatrice (Mozhan Marno), dewy-eyed naïfs Hero (Claire Brownell) and Claudio (William Jackson Harper)—think they’ve left war and hardship behind, only to find it’s followed them into their frisky postbellum Arcadia, in the person of the evil, pot-stirring Don John (Orlando Pabotoy). (Choreographer Jesse J. Perez plays John’s “good” brother, Don Pedro, but really, they’re two sides of the same coin—forces of submerged rage and abettors of bad male behavior. Interestingly, both actors, in this production, double as female characters.)
Settles, working outside a traditional amphitheater, lets her notions of theatrical play run wonderfully wild, giving actors generous lease of spaces we hadn’t expected to see them in. (Beatrice, on the night I attended, even swiped a beer from an audience member.) The ensemble is wildly appealing across the board, and surfs a sonic tide of catchy original tunes custom-composed by indie rocker Stew and his Passing Strange collaborator Heidi Rodewald. (Their setting of Portia’s “Where is Fancy Bred?,” judiciously imported from The Merchant of Venice, is especially nice.) Settles never lets you forget what’s at stake—a lady’s honor, a soldier’s life, the fabric of civilization itself—but this is, first and foremost, a nifty hipster block party, only, miraculously, without the slightest whiff of obnoxiousness. (Wooddell’s Benedick is especially appealing, and you’re unlikely to see another actor earn so many solid laughs off a Shakespearean monologue delivered in a Mogwai T-shirt, a peacock headdress, and furry gorilla pants.) Viewed objectively, the concluding nuptials of Much Ado are nearly as distressing as those of All’s Well or Measure for Measure. Should the self-righteous Claudio, so easily manipulated into shaming innocent Hero by Don John, still get the girl? Why should she want him after what he’s put her through? Shakespeare clearly never saw marriage as a cure-all, or the end of the story—just a nice place to throw in a dance. So go to the Park and take your solemn vows. Then hit Greenwich for the reception.
All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure are playing in repertory, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, through July 30.
Much Ado About Nothing is playing in Baldwin Park in Greenwich, Connecticut, from July 5 through 10.