All's Well That Ends Well
nytheatre.com review by Matt Schicker
July 1, 2007
It's easy to be distracted during a performance of Boomerang Theatre Company's production of Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well in Central Park. Police sirens, low-flying jets, cheering bocce ball players, and barking dogs all compete with actors' voices and Shakespeare's words. It is to Boomerang's credit that All's Well manages to be essentially engaging from start to finish; after eight seasons of producing Shakespeare in the outdoors, the company has a casual yet focused attitude that allows pretty good theatre to happen in a pretty unpredictable environment. Their tactic seems to be to let the show be just another part of the Park's activities on a summer afternoon.
Which is not to say that this is ultimately satisfying Shakespeare, or a theatre experience without challenges. Once I got past the fact that I was going to get dirty (the audience area was pretty muddy and there are no seats unless you bring a blanket or chair yourself), dusty (wafting from the sandy "stage" under actors' shuffling feet), or possibly even wet (be warned if you sit close—there are a few water balloons in the first scene), I enjoyed the story and the characters, but as a "Shakespeare experience", I found All's Well lacking. This isn't a big surprise as a lot of the language is lost simply because of the uncontrollable acoustics of the outdoors, not to mention the aforementioned sirens, barks, etc. Shakespeare's great characters are enough to hold interest on their own, however, and the bold costumes by Carolyn Pallister and the skill and outdoors-sized gestures of the actors go a long way toward telling a clear and entertaining story.
All's Well That Ends Well is one of Shakespeare's "problem plays," shifting between comic elements and darker dilemmas. If you're unfamiliar with the plot, you can read a synopsis here. Director John Hurley and costume designer Pallister nicely play up the contrast between the pomp and circumstance of the French court and the earthy good humor of the Florence, Italy.
For the most part, the cast is terrific and there is a lot of acting talent involved. Karen Sternberg's sunny Helena wins Bertram with her smarts and gumption, though, as often is the case with All's Well, it's hard to believe that so intelligent a young lady would jump through so many proverbial hoops for such an immature guy. Such matters are only skimmed in this production, though other elements are played to their full potential in the outdoors. With the Park at their disposal, Chris Harcum and David Berent, as the Dumaine brothers, literally have a field day torturing blow-hard Parolles, energetically played by Christopher Illing.
As Parolles, Illing embraces the comic egotism of his character, but the transformation of Parolles from braggart to "honest" man isn't convincing. Likewise, Aaron Michael Zook's Bertram, who otherwise is fine as the juvenile idiot with a strong sense of entitlement and his own good looks, doesn't nail the moment of his first "adult" emotion—hurt—when his best friend Parolles bad-mouths him to a group of soldiers. Although All's Well is a "romantic comedy" of its time, there still are some fine moments like these that could stand a little more dramatic weight.
Alisha Spielmann is saucy as Diana, the Florentine woman who is accomplice in Helena's plot to win Bertram, and Cassandra Kassell is a hoot as Diana's mother, the Widow Capilet. Mary Round and Tom Knutson are among the most audible in the ensemble, but their performances don't seem to explore the roles as deeply. Against all odds, Benjamin Ellis Fine is subtle as the clown Lavatch; it's impressive that he manages to avoid hamming it up with outsized antics in the outdoors while still getting all his character's laughs. Robert Grossman finds more humor than usual in the role of the King of France.
It's refreshing to see a show that relies on a good story and the beauty and natural terrain of the outdoors for setting, even if the drama and the words get shortchanged. Let's hope that Boomerang can continue to avoid becoming "Shakespeare light" in the face of the ever-present danger that the unwitting audience participation of passers-by may become more entertaining than the play.