It's sunset in Central Park, and a man in a golf cart is driving around and emptying the trash cans. A few yards away, a 3-year-old is having a birthday party complete with balloons, picnic lunches, and shrieks of joy and discontent. It all looks pretty typical of parks around the world. Except for the Count of Rossillion, who can be seen stealing away to Florence in hopes of escaping a forced marriage to a woman of a lower caste. Only in New York. More specifically, only in Central Park, where the New York Classical Theater produces free stagings of the classics. Right now it's Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well, and director Jay Paul Skelton has conceived an afternoon of entertainment that not only ends well but has a beginning and middle that are lots of fun too.
All's Well is one of the Bard's more peculiar comedies. Even more unsettling than two offstage deaths before the curtain's rise are the male romantic lead, who is pretty unlikable, and the story's moral, which seems to be that you can weasel your way into marriage, the army, or political power, provided you know the right people.
The right person is the ailing king of France who, upon being cured by a physician's daughter named Helena, agrees to force the object of her affection, the Count of Rossillion, into marriage. But Bertram, the count, wants little to do with Helena and spirits himself away to Florence, where he joins the army with his serpentine pal Parolles. If All's Well has a claim to notoriety, it is the "bed trick" by which Helena switches places with another woman, Diana, with whom Bertram plans to be intimate. As a result, Helena becomes pregnant and satisfies Bertram's marriage demand: that she mother his child.
The fun in this production is its kinetic energy. As the characters country-hop from Rossillion to France to Florence and back, the audience is led around one of the many ponds in the park. Along the way, Skelton gives us glimpses of the unscripted in-between scenes, like the theft of Parolles’s drum and his eventual capture. Shakespeare had both of these scenes occur offstage, but here they add flavor and diversity to the proceedings. If the audience keeps moving, then the production has no choice but to keep from being burdened by the play's sometimes long-winded text.
The entire cast deserves special commendation for its focus and audibility in the midst of such a distracting, unpredictable environment, even if Vince Nappo's howling Parolles and Elena Araoz's fiery Diana are the immediate standouts. On the evening I saw the show, there were a few well-covered line slips that bespoke a strong ensemble whose members are willing to look out for one another.
Sadly, when the sun went down and Classical Theater members began pointing flashlights at the actors' faces, it distracted a number of people in the audience and probably the cast too. Though understandable, this device broke the play's flow during the final scenes. Shakespeare probably never envisioned one of his comedies being played in pitch-black night. Raising the curtain an hour earlier would solve the problem, although weekday audiences would have to race here from the office.
This summer, many will likely be racing to Central Park to see the Public Theater's Macbeth. While that's sure to be a solid production, waiting in line for hours to squint at Liev Schreiber in the distance may shatter the mystique of free Shakespeare in the park. If that star-studded and sold-out show sounds unappealing, New York Classical Theater's dynamic and more traditional staging of Shakespeare may be a welcome alternative for some audiences.