06/30/2011 09:15 pm ET | Updated Aug 30, 2011

First Nighter: Two Shakespeare "Problem" Plays Cause Additional Problems in Central Park

The so-called problem plays William Shakespeare uncorked in the earliest years of the 17th century contain enough problems that there's no call for directors and players to add new ones. That, however, is what's transpiring in Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well, the Public Theater's summer 2011 Central Park offerings, which, by the way, are being played in repertory.

David Esbjornson wastes no time getting the better-known Measure for Measure off on questionable footing. Thinking to explain why Vincentio, Duke of Vienna (Lorenzo Pisoni) decides to pass temporary control of his holdings to good friend and deputy Angelo (Michael Hayden), over-rationalizing director Esbjornson introduces a cluster of beak-nosed demons. He's suggesting that the Duke is having nightmares about the dire state of his state and is provoked to do something about it pronto.

Dispatching the menacing figures in black (costumes by Elizabeth Hope Clancy) as an opening coup de theatre, Esbjornson has them lurk occasionally in the first half of the proceedings and then dismisses them. But the half-baked notion is the least of his transgressions. The worst is probably the manner in which he allows Danai Gurira to portray Isabella, the novice whose brother Claudio (André Holland) has been condemned to death on a technicality but whose life will be spared if the virginal young woman agrees to give herself body and compromised soul to the now-in-power-and-lustful Angelo.

Perhaps choosing with Esbjornson to avoid the standard approach to Isabella as a pious innocent, Gurira presents this Isabella as a prospective nun hell-bent on keeping her virginity intact. From her opening about-to-take-religious-orders appearance, she delivers the Bard's speeches in such Valkyrie-like fury that it's a wonder steam isn't issuing from her ears. Gurira's heroine is no way a spiritual being but someone apparently choosing the cloistered life because she has such contempt for the outside world. The sole plus here is that at drama's end when the returned Vincentio offers Isabella his hand, her acceptance of the proposal rather than considering a retreat to convent life seems completely logical.

When a Measure for Measure's Isabella is at such odds with the writing -- another explanation for the upended treatment of the character could be today's insistence on women protagonists registering as proactive -- much of the rest of the goings-on are thrown off kilter. Of those advised to get out of her way or else, a few actors are able to turn in acceptable work. Chief among them are the handsome and likable Pisoni as Vincentio and the also handsome Hayden as the conflicted Angelo, although out of a scrupulous actor's concern he does labor a few of his pithy lines.

Of the others making favorable impressions -- while racing back and forth in front, under and on Scott Pask's arched, two-level set with detachable staircases -- are beautifully trained veterans John Cullum as Vincentio's elder aide Escalus and Dakin Matthews as Provost. Carson Elrod, as the pimp Pompey, is especially adept at making the Bard's comic scenes amusing when for modern audiences they aren't necessarily laughs-inducing.

Lucas Caleb Rooney, in two roles, isn't as facile as the challenge demands. Reg Rogers playing the trouble-making Lucio milks his every line for yuks, but his unabated efforts eventually push the limit. Annie Parisse as Angelo's snubbed fiancée, and Tonya Pinkins as bawdy, beleaguered Mistress Overdone are neither overdone or underdone -- simply done.

But on to Dan Sullivan's All's Well That Ends Well treatment and a second example of how problematic a Shakespeare problem play becomes when awkwardly handled. The ironed-in wrinkle of this opus stems from the situation in which enterprising yet woefully class-conscious Helena (Parisse), ward of Countess Rousillion (Pinkins in a role Shakespeare spells as Rousillon), uses healing powers she's inherited to cure the French King (Cullum) of a fistula and, as reward, is wed to the Countess's wayward aristocratic son, Bertram (Holland).

Why a young woman of Helena's intelligence would want to link herself to someone as soullessly immature as Bertram isn't a question the divine Will has taken many pains to explain. So it falls to director Sullivan, whose Merchant of Venice last year was a notable achievement, and to the actors assigned the roles to make sense of them. This may be an all but impossible request to fill, of course. It certainly looks impossible in a revival where those tapped to play the focal roles not only land far shy of the demands put on them but are egregiously cast.

(Is this a drawback of works done in repertory? Can directors get caught using ensemble members in roles only because they're judged close enough to the parts they're to play?)

Holland, all smiles and affable youth at the start and then by turns cruel or uncertain, evinces no sense of how to shape a consistent characterization -- not that the Bard has provided sufficiently helpful hints. Worse, he looks as if he's someone whom Parisse might be baby-sitting rather than pining for. Granted Parisse often looks Vogue-model-stunning in Jane Greenwood's Edwardian costumes, but a sense of the ludicrous pairing in which she's involved may explain the not very committed performance she tenders. Pinkins, despite trying hard under an elaborate gray wig, brings too little of the regal command the Countess needs. Normally a force to be reckoned with on stage, Pinkins may have been mistaken to take on these assignments.

As the hard-to-credit narrative unfolds, there are at least two accomplished appearances -- Cullum as the King and Matthews as the Countess's reliable friend Lafew. The men know how to speak Shakespeare's lines with the requisite pith, passion and playfulness. And fortunately, one completely successful sequence unfolds when cowardly braggart Parolles (Reg Rogers, sufficiently entertaining but giving the same performance he files as Lucio) is taken by his own men, blind-folded and forced to spill the beans about the military action taking place. It's a ruse to show his master Bertram what a weakling he is. It works, especially as played by Pisoni and Hayden. The reliable Elrod shines again as a supposed interpreter translating the captors' calculated gibberish into heavily accented English.

But for the most part, this All's Well That Ends Well -- indifferently performed by most of the remaining cast members -- doesn't begin well, fare very well at its middle or end satisfyingly well. Oh, well.