New Yorkers are a cynical and individualistic bunch, reluctant to parrot slogans and loathe to do anything en masse. But if ever we were to reveal our inner romantic jingoists, we would do so by proclaiming Milton Glaser’s straightforward dictum of urban pride, and we would do it not separately, but together, contentedly nestled in the Delacorte Theater at the western edge of Central Park, the Beresford triple-towering behind us, talented actors reciting Shakespeare’s poetry on the big stage in front of us, trees in the distance tousled by the breeze and stars—actual, visible, celestial stars—twinkling overhead. I love New York, one of the 1,800 happy theatergoers would rise to say. I love New York, another would echo. More would repeat, until the crowd’s declarations reached a great crescendo. At Shakespeare in the Park—more than almost anywhere else in the city; more than ever, in Mr. Glaser’s 2001 tweak—it is impossible not to love New York.
There’s plenty of Shakespeare around, of course, and there are other annual outdoor Shakespeare festivals. (To name just two: Shakespeare in the Parking Lot is a subway ride south, and Shakespeare on the Sound is a quick drive up the Hutch.) But where else could you find a fully outfitted open-air theater in a great urban park? Where else could you get Equity casts and Broadway directors and top-tier design and production? Only in New York, kids, and that’s part of what makes a night at the Delacorte so magical.
What’s interesting, then, is how differently the two directors of this year’s Shakespeare in the Park productions—All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure opened last week and are being performed in repertory, as The Merchant of Venice and The Winter’s Tale were last year—have treated the theater in which they’re working and that is so integral a part of the theatergoer’s experience.
Daniel Sullivan, whose insightful and compassionate interpretation of Merchant last summer delivered Al Pacino to Broadway and made Lily Rabe a star, this year directs All’s Well That Ends Well in a staging that both embraces and takes it tone from its surroundings. The Delacorte stage is left open to the lighted foliage behind it, and the whole enterprise feels light and open. The play, sometimes described as a fairy tale, is presented as a lark, an entertainment for a summer night. It is a delight.
David Esbjornson, on the other hand, directs a Measure for Measure that rejects its environment. The production is dark, heavy. Where All’s Well, set in what appears to be the Edwardian period, uses as its one set piece a delicate, filigreed, double-height loggia spanning the stage, that same element in Measure is instead clad in blocky, black-painted wood, a hulking monolith that gives the stage a dark, medieval cast. (These simple, effective and versatile sets are by Scott Pask; Peter Kaczorowski did the lovely lighting design.) The trees behind the stage are kept dark for Measure, and when a breeze blows across the stage, mussing the costumes, it seems ominous. While Mr. Sullivan’s All’s Well plays for laughs, Mr. Esbjornson’s Measure is a morality fable. It is a gloomy production, and it is a gloomy evening.
Otherwise, much about these two offerings is similar.
Both All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure are believed to have been written around 1604, both concern goings-on at court—the King of France’s in All’s Well, the Duke of Vienna’s in Measure—and both are driven by powerful, wronged, young women.
In All’s Well, Helena, the orphaned daughter of a great doctor, saves the king’s life and as her reward is wed to Bertram, a count, who runs off to war rather than consummate marriage to a woman he believes his inferior. In Measure, Angelo, the staunch moralist ruling Vienna in the duke’s absence, orders Claudio beheaded for the crime of impregnating his fiancée. The novice Isabella, Claudio’s sister, pleads to Angelo for leniency and is propositioned: If she will sleep with the heretofore upstanding ruler, he will free her brother.
Both figure among Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays,” in that they are classifiable as neither comedies nor tragedies, but also in that they don’t entirely make sense. (This is more true of All’s Well, which provides no reason why strong, capable Helena would remain in thrall to a self-absorbed ass like Bertram, or why their final-scene reconciliation should be thought a happy ending, other than that it plainly is one.)
Both plots also turn on a “bed trick,” which is the Shakespeare-studies term for the plot device in which a woman agrees to go to bed with a man but then arranges for a different woman to be waiting in the darkened bedroom. (When a pair of male twins pulled a bed trick on one brother’s girlfriend in what I recall as a Law & Order episode, it was called “rape,” which lacks the same terminological playfulness.)
Beyond thematic similarities, the plays also share stellar performances by the company’s actors.
Mr. Sullivan works the same magic with his Helena in All’s Well, Annie Parisse, that he did last summer with Ms. Rabe in Merchant: determined, sensitive and powerful, Ms. Parisse (who played in two of my favorite off-Broadway plays of the past two seasons, Becky Shaw and Clybourne Park) is a joy to watch, a star. The Isabella in Mr. Esbjornson’s Measure is the stunning Danai Gurira, Zimbabwean by way of Iowa, who is as captivating as Ms. Parisse and plays the role exuding the moving certitude of the religious and the good.
Other deeply pleasurable performances come from the accomplished veteran John Cullum, who is 81 years old and owns the stage as All’s Well’s King of France (and owns it less as Measure’s Escalus only because the part is smaller); the estimable Tonya Pinkins, delightful as both a regal countess in All’s Well and a bawdy madam in Measure; and the expert Shakespearian Dakin Matthews, who shows a blend of steel and compassion as both a wise old lord in All’s Well and the jailer in Measure.
The only performer who doesn’t meet this standard is Reg Rogers, who is smarmy and grating in more than just the intended ways as comic-relief characters in both plays. (He plays both as extended riffs on Monty Python’s “I fart in your general direction” French soldier.) But that is a small detail. All’s Well is wonderful, Measure is somewhat less so, and both provide a fine chance to spend an evening at the loveliest place in New York.