Shakespeare in the Park is baaaaack! For some reason, audiences have had the great good fortune of lovely weather over the last few weeks as they sit outside for All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, which somewhat lessens the annoyances of both productions—chief among them repertory member Reg Rogers, who makes no effort to rein in his Snagglepuss tendencies. Every line is a gasp, every plosive an excuse to shower the stage in saliva. There is absolutely no difference in his twin roles, and it’s a toss up as to which is more infuriating.
As for the shows, this season brings us the dramatically nonsensical All’s Well That Ends Well, which finds Helena (Annie Parisse, so sweet and good she seems simple-minded) pining for the young and arrogant Bertram (André Holland), a man whose allure is never really established. The alternating play is Measure for Measure, here given a dark, occasionally punk aesthetic by David Esbjornson that involves some leotard-clad, dildo sporting demons cavorting across the stage (Elizabeth Hope Clancy’s costumes verge on the vulgar). A comedy of morality, Measure revolves around the complicated machinations of the Duke of Vienna (Lorenzo Pisoni), who disguises himself as a friar and watches as his deputy (Michael Hayden) starts punishing pre-marital sex with death—until he propositions the sister of a condemned man, novice Isabella (Danai Gurira), who is not happy about it.
Neither director bothers much with their play’s comedy (though Esbjornson goes out of his way to make his production as crude as possible), with Daniel Sullivan relying on Tom Kitt’s incidental music to convey what the acting doesn’t in All’s Well. Something madcap is about to happen? Better speed up the tempo! And Sullivan makes no effort to convince us that Bertram is a worthy contender for Helena’s heart; in fact, Parisse’s unflattering costumes and skimmed-back wig make her look like a skinny spinster aunt, not a viable romantic prospect for Bertram. We get why he laughs at the suggestion of marrying her, instead of our hearts sinking at his callousness. Esbjornson’s major contribution to Measure are those demons, which open the show, prance around between scenes a few times in the first act, and then retreat back to hell permanently, for all we know; they never make an appearance again. Both men, however, excel at padding out Shakespeare, as if these plays weren’t long enough already.
As for the performances, Lorenzo Pisoni fares best in Measure, and Carson Elrod, with a drawling, ironic Claude Rains delivery, does the best work in All’s Well as the interpreter, though he is almost unbearable in Measure as pimp Pompey. Elrod gives the most modern turn in that scattershot show, with an open leather vest and an emphasis on twisting Shakespeare’s verse into tortured contemporary jokes. Tonya Pinkins is on hand for both, as an unlikely Countess in All’s Well and an unfunny Mistress Overdone in Measure (who croons a song in the second act), blithely unaware that her performances don’t quite fit in with either the plays or the productions.
Everyone seems intent on producing Shakespeare for people who don’t like Shakespeare these days, turning the verse into slangy, casual chitchat. Lily Rabe, so brilliant in most of last year’s Merchant of Venice, is a prime example. Under Sullivan’s direction, Portia’s "quality of mercy" speech became something Portia is working through on the spot, rather than a ringing, stirring call to arms. Likewise, Matthews’ speeches as Isabella ring the same note of rage repeatedly, as if speechmaking is something to be shunned. In contemporary plays, perhaps, but if one doesn’t go to town on the big moments in Shakespeare, what we’re left with is a collection of comic foils and oversized characters shrunk down to life size. And at the Delacorte Theater, backed by Central Park and the Belvedere Castle, life size isn’t big enough.
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