Problem Plays in the Park

Special Features   Problem Plays in the Park
 
Shakespeare in the Park explores two of Shakespeare's thorny "problem plays" — Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well.

Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis
Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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We all know what Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater, refers to as Shakespeare's so-called "golden dozen": that roster of plays (Hamlet, Twelfth Night, King Lear, A Midsummer Night's Dream and so on) that get done time and again, leaving the less celebrated works of the canon to languish relatively unexplored.

Until recently, that is. Cymbeline is a late-career Romance that seems to have come back into fashion, as has the knotted, bitter, endlessly fascinating Troilus and Cressida, one of a trio of acknowledged "problem plays." This summer, The Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park is giving itself over entirely to two other such plays that ostensibly end happily, but who's to say? Running in repertory through July 30, Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well share the Delacorte stage; an ensemble of actors that includes John Cullum, Tonya Pinkins, Reg Rogers, Annie Parisse, and Michael Hayden; and a view of humankind that at once troubles and intrigues. And since we live in confused times, why not relish plays that unapologetically lend confusion pride of place? "All yet seems well," we're told at the climax of a play whose title itself is subject to revision by the end of the fifth act.

Eustis points up a desire "to tackle the thornier plays in the repertoire and to tackle them in the Park" — plays, he says, that offer up "real challenges of unity and tone." Sure, All's Well concludes with the orphaned Helena, ward of the elegant Countess of Rousillion, finally coming together with Bertram, who is both the Countess's son and the object of the lowly Helena's abiding lust. But does their commingling prompt the cause for celebration that we take away from, say, Rosalind and Orlando or Beatrice and Benedict? Possibly not, in the same way that one casts severe doubts over the amorous appropriation in Measure for Measure by the Viennese Duke of the young novitiate nun, Isabella. Even that play's erotically awakened Angelo is an anti-hero from whose advances we recoil in a mixture of fear and disgust; some figure of authority he, though modern-day equivalents are, alas, all too easy to find.

 

Andre Holland and Annie Parisse in All's Well That Ends Well
photo by Joan Marcus

Both texts can land in infinitely many ways, as has been nowhere clearer of late than in London. All's Well was the stuff of extravagant fairy tale in the 2009 National Theatre staging, directed and designed by Marianne Elliott and Rae Smith (War Horse). But the same text can equally be mined for Chekhovian melancholy or giddy high spirits or something approaching grace. That last option was the case in 2004 when Dame Judi Dench played the Countess for the director Gregory Doran at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Daniel Sullivan triumphed in the Park last summer — and scored a Tony nomination — directing a Shakespeare "comedy," The Merchant of Venice, that registers very darkly, to put it mildly, in the modern day. All the more reason for his return a year later, this time with a play in which class proves the potentially insuperable issue just as religion is in the money-minded Italy on view in Merchant. "Trying to solve the problem of a play like this is why you go into it," explains Sullivan, whose task includes tracing the trajectory of the aristocratic Bertram and the physician's daughter, Helena, so that their eventual union makes some kind of sense.

Tonya Pinkins and Carson Elrod in Measure for Measure
photo by Joan Marcus

"It's not as if I'm trying to twist this play and make it something it's not; there's not the soul-sickness in All's Well that there is in Merchant, where Shylock's treatment has affected everyone involved." Nonetheless, says Sullivan, to do All's Well justice is to honor a script tellingly steeped in the conditional ("if" is the defining word of the last scene), suggesting that Shakespeare himself was far from sure. As Sullivan says of Helena, whom some regard as a proto-feminist ahead of her time, "sure, a new maturity overtakes her, but whether that is not a little cracked is open to debate."

Justice itself is put on trial in Measure for Measure, one of the few Shakespeares whose title figures resonantly in the play itself (All's Well is another, its titular aphorism amended, as mentioned, in time for the final bows). Barry Edelstein, director of the Public's Shakespeare Initiative and dramaturg for both productions, talks persuasively of Measure bridging the legalistic milieu of Merchant with the sense of stage managing the event that we associate with late plays like The Tempest: not just a "problem play," in other words, but a pivotal one.

Measure, notes Edelstein, "brings in Christian doctrine and spirituality to provide a framework in which we can understand the qualities of mercy, whereas All's Well is a completely secular play." But like its Delacorte counterpart, Measure remains discomfiting in its move toward a final alliance that can seem mighty cryptic, not least when confronted with the travails suffered by the righteous Isabella at the hands of the craven Angelo. The rampant libido of the Duke's appointed deputy itself contributes to a play that, like All's Well, separates out love from sex. Such comic heroines as Twelfth Night's Viola, one feels, would be appalled.

 

Lorenzo Pisoni and Danai Gurira in Measure for Measure
photo by Joan Marcus

Sullivan is updating the action of All's Well to the era of World War I and just beyond: near enough that we understand it without knowing its workings first-hand. Measure director David Esbjornson, by contrast, is keeping his production within the God-fearing, faith-based Renaissance world from which it springs, an era in which people knew about things like plague but also about the passions, clamped-down and otherwise, that drive all three principal characters on. Esbjornson talks of "feeling the confusion in the play: a landscape in which people don't know what to do, and love may have something to do with it, or maybe not." Both plays run toward the inexplicable, embracing contradiction along the way. "The woman who can speak better than anyone can't speak anymore," Esbjornson says of Isabella's progress through Measure, and Helena, come her All's Well finale, isn't much chattier herself. "These are plays that can take many different shapes successfully," argues Oskar Eustis, and one has to agree. Problems? Sure, if you demand your theater neatly packaged and pre-digested. Everyone else is invited to surrender to the occasion of a balmy summer's night in Central Park and let Shakespeare's singular alchemy — a sensitivity to behavior resistant to the ready-made aphorism, a title like All's Well That Ends Well notwithstanding — take you where it will. Or well.

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Matt Wolf is a London theatre critic for The International Herald Tribune and a founding member of the website
www.theartsdesk.com.

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