Death silently stalks the players in Richard Jones’ mesmerizing production of “All’s Well That Ends Well” in Central Park. But like the cruel, cynical world of this “problem play” of Shakespeare, this Death boasts a comic gloss, being impersonated by a little boy in a Halloween skeleton costume. Sometimes he slips, unnoticed, into courtly processions at Rousillon and Paris; somtimes he peers down at the action from a perch.
For all that he represents, this pint-size portent is hard to take too seriously. Other intimations of death are harsher, particularly in Act I, which concludes with a wedding procession that bears a chilly resemblance to the funereal opening Jones offers to begin the play.
While not shortchanging play’s comic elements, this production refuses to soft-pedal its — or Shakespeare’s — disturbing ambiguity.
Jones, one of a handful of brash directing talents currently shaking up the London theater, is best known to New York audiences for his staging of David Hirson’s “La Bete” in 1991, a Broadway failure that nevertheless struck many who saw it as boldly staged.
He knits the psychological and visual elements of play and production into an evanescent, dreamlike whole — an aesthetic clearly in evidence at the Delacorte.
Of course, the Delacorte on a summer night can imbue almost any show with a dreamlike quality.
But Jones and designer Stewart Laing brazenly ignore the park’s charms, preferring instead to impose their own sensibility on the play.
The stage, widened almost to the breaking point, is bracketed by pine doors cantilevered at either side (one huge, one small).
A small orchestra bathed in blue light is visible through a square frame that seems suspended in the darkness at stage right, and a row of candles dots the edge of the stage.
When the action moves to Italy, Laing doesn’t open up the space to the natural elements available; instead, he has a narrow window open on the rear wall to reveal a lovely, painted Tuscan landscape.
For a play in which deal-making supersedes trust, and appearance prevails over love, such painterly, slightly surreal artifice seems entirely reasonable.
As Helena, the orphan in love with her guardian’s feckless son, Miriam Healy-Louie dominates the ensemble with a performance that goes right to the heart.
Why Helena loves the cad Bertram (Graham Winton) despite his treachery and duplicitousness defies comprehension, yet the actress makes it plausible simply through the depth of passion in her voice and the dignity with which this Helena meets every challenge.
There is much dignity, as well, in Joan Macintosh’s Countess. But Winton is a fairly bland Bertram, particularly beside Michael Cumpsty’s flamboyant Parolles — a comic antihero who has all of Falstaff’s character flaws and none of his charms — and Rocco Sisto’s dry clown, Lavatch.
As Diana, the Florentine woman who allows herself to be wooed by Bertram so that Helena might ultimately take her place in bed with him, Patrice Johnson is fine.
The fact that she is black (and has a white mother, Patricia Kilgarriff), will bother only those who mistakenly think that “All’s Well” is a realistic play. Also fine are Herb Foster’s stalwart King of France and Henry Stram’s faithful Lafeu.
Jonathan Dove’s underscoring is almost always beautiful and only occasionally intrusive.
Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting is varied and fluid; indeed, the whole production is imbued with an organic quality of movement (for which some credit is surely due movement director Daniel Banks).
Though “All’s Well” doesn’t end well — who could possibly believe that Bertram and Helena will live happily ever after? — Jones’ staging makes it a midsummer night’s dream.