Director Daniel Sullivan and the cast of Shakespeare in the Park's production of "All's Well That Ends Well" have done something hard — they've managed to make neither of its two lead characters into villains.
Annie Parisse as Helena comes across as a spunky, love-starved heroine who is determined to get her man even though he despises her, while Andre Holland plays Bertram as a sweet rogue who has something of a stalker on his hands.
The result, which opened Saturday, is a production whose needle quivers toward the comedy end of the spectrum in one of Shakespeare's "problem plays" — a complex mix of tragedy and humor that the Public Theater has pared this summer at the Delacorte Theatre with the equally tricky "Measure for Measure" directed by David Esbjornson.
Sullivan's may be the visually tamer of the two productions — Esbjornson channels Alexander McQueen in his — but it is a lush and clever staging set in 1918 that benefits from Tom Kitt's evocative mood music leaning on strings and Jane Greenwood's handsome costumes of flapper dresses, World War I uniforms and somber suits with white ties.
It is lovely production that, in the final scene, leaves both Helena and Bertram hand-in-hand but a little stunned by what has happened. Helena, "a poor physician's daughter," has twice won her lord — once after healing the king and once after tricking her love to commit adultery with her. He looks beaten, resigned. She looks regal.
But grim as some of the plot lines are, Sullivan, who last year took his Shakespeare in the Park production of "The Merchant of Venice" with Al Pacino to Broadway, has mined all the laughs and humanity, aided by excellent performances by Parisse, Holland, the terrific Reg Rogers as the buffoon Parolles and a solid Tonya Pinkins as the Countess. The clown, Lavatch (played drolly by David Manis), has been nicely transformed into a country bumpkin.
There are visual jokes, such as a newspaper headline that reads "King Lives!" after the French monarch (a bashfully regal but quick-to-anger John Collum) emerges cured from his sick bed by Helena. Suitors for Helena appear in Act 1 like a rose ceremony scene from "The Bachelorette" and a very pregnant character is seen munching on an eclair. The scene in which the braggart and coward Parolles is exposed is brilliantly staged, complete with fake accents and gobbledygook.
Sullivan keeps the action moving at a furious pace, aided by a trap door that pops up for a new scene even as actors from a previous one are still exiting. A jukebox, a set of tents, chairs, curtains and a cannon are all the props needed.
Parisse starts off her Helena as a geeky, teary wallflower who gradually gains in intensity and strength and loveliness — as do her costumes — while her beloved pulls further away. She simply pursues — leaving unanswered whether she really wants Bertram, seeks the security of jumping into his class, or simply refuses to be denied.
In any case, she becomes a force of nature, a take-charge homing missile who can't take a hint. She isn't waiting for God to answer her prayers. "Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie/Which we ascribe to heaven," she says.
Bertram, on the other hand, is a cad who will wink at any pretty maiden in a dress — his own mother calls him a "rash and unbridled boy" — but Holland is so genial that he just comes across as more luckless than venal. He has that rare ability to make the centuries melt away since Shakespeare wrote his rich dialogue.
For Bertram, this tale is not a tale of love. It's a horror story and he conveys the growing terror of a man who is forced to marry a woman against his will and, after fleeing into a war to get away from her, is tricked back into her arms and publicly ridiculed at the court.
He's hardly a victim, though. As he runs from Helena, he seduces another woman (Kristen Connolly as Diana), hands over a precious family ring as payment and then, when confronted, denies the sexual relationship by blaming the maiden. The play seems to nicely tap into the current men-being-naughty vibe, helped by cigar smoke wafting around by wolfish characters.
In the play, though, poor Bertram is simply no match for his better half. When his wife reappears at the end from a faked death and all of her scheming has been exposed, Bertram is asked by Helena if he will finally submit to her.
The poor husband is stunned and still somewhat confused by this Terminator of love. He replies to the king: "If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly/I'll love her dearly — ever, ever dearly."
Sullivan's production teases out all the feminism of this play. Helena outthinks, outwits and basically steamrolls Bertram. What she wins is a lukewarm husband, a man higher in class but hardly classy. It's not exactly a fairy tale ending.
Even the king isn't so sure we have a happy ending. "All yet seems well," he says.