by Michael Bracken
It may be labeled a “problem play,”, but the Drilling Company has no problem whipping up a high-spirited production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. Presented at the Clemente Plaza/Parking Lot on the Lower East Side, it ushers in the 23rd season of Shakespeare in the Parking Lot with a bang. While it has some dark overtones for a comedy (hence the “problem”), this production joyfully embraces its comic core.
A parking lot is the perfect venue for a play with a slightly split personality. Shakespeare al fresco suggests the bucolic, not bricks, concrete, and asphalt. The contradiction is itself a joke; it’s what makes the experience so festive.
All’s Well begins in France, where the Countess of Rossillion (the excellent Elowyn Castle) bids adieu to her son, Bertram (Adam Huff, deftly handling a difficult role), who has been summoned by the ailing king to Paris. Also saying good-bye is Helena (Anwen Darcy), whose deceased father was a famous physician who left her formulae for his miraculous cures. When everyone else has exited, she confesses her deep, unrequited love for Bertram.
Enter Parolles (Michael Bernstein), Bertam’s companion and a well-known (except to Bertram) scoundrel, who asks Helen, “Are you meditating on virginity?”
Not the smoothest pickup line, but it’s direct. And Helena is not afraid to come right back at him. They mince no words in a prolonged exchange replete with sexual wordplay. Shakespeare is no stranger to carnal banter, but this repartee is exceptional in its frankness, its placement (so early in the play), and its length. Both Bernstein and Darcy make the most of it.
Darcy’s precision in slinging arrows at Parolles serves her well. But that same quality works against her elsewhere. Her every facial expression and vocal intonation are perfectly on point, but they seem calculated, arriving by design. Letting go a little would do her a world of good.
Helena soon hies to Paris and the king. She tells him she can heal him, and they make a pact: if she doesn’t heal him she dies, but if she heals him she gets to pick her husband from among the gentlemen at court. She succeeds and picks Bertram, who is horrified to have to marry someone so lowly born. He weds but doesn’t bed her, swearing he will do so only when she is pregnant with his child and wearing his family’s ring. Then he flees to the wars in Italy.
Helena goes briefly back to Rossillion, where the Countess consoles her and condemns her son. The somber mood is broken by the antics of the Fool (Mary Linehan) a recurring presence in the employ of the Countess. Linehan gives a bravado performance, quick with quips and, at one point, exploding into song, getting down on one knee, like Al Jolson singing “Mammy.”
Soon Helena is off to Italy, where she gets out word she is dead. She enlists the help of a local maiden, Diana (Elaine Ivy Harris), who’s very funny as she coquettishly pretends to succumb to Bertram’s advances. She gets the ring for Helena and sets up a rendezvous in the dark where Helena takes her place.
Meanwhile, in a subplot, Parolles is exposed for the coward that he is, as he sells out the count and the army when he is fooled into thinking he has been taken prisoner by the enemy. It’s an amusing bit but seems drawn out and cluttered with stage business.
Otherwise, Karla Hendrick’s direction is inventive, as both her casting the Fool as a woman and having monologues addressed to the audience demonstrate. She even allows for audience participation: men are drafted from their seats to impersonate French lords as Helena chooses her husband-to-be.
Hendrick also has two French counts (Eric Paterniani and Jarrod Bates) act in unison like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, witty for much of the piece but ultimately overdone. Grace Whittemore’s costumes are eclectic -bowler hats, Che Guevara berets, Rosie the Riveter kerchiefs -and fun.
Thursdays – Saturdays through July 22 at La Plaza @ The Clemente Parking Lot, 114 Norfolk Street (E. side of Norfolk St. between Delancey and Rivington). www.shakespeareintheparkinglot.com. Two hours with no intermission.