ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL. Comedy by William Shakespeare. Directed by Richard Jones. At the Delacorte Theater through Aug. 29.
ALL'S well at the New York Shakespeare Festival, as the new Central Park production of "All's Well That Ends Well" vividly proves.
The festival's previous outdoor offering this summer, "Measure for Measure," showed the organization forging ahead at full steam with its Shakespeare Marathon despite the death of founder Joseph Papp and the forced departure of artistic director JoAnne Akalai-tis, his chosen successor.
But that production had the advantage of an important star - Kevin Kline - to ensure an extra measure of panache in the proceedings.
By contrast, "All's Well That Ends Well" has no major Shakespeareans in its cast. The most famous name is Michael Cumpsty, who has done his share of Shakespeare but is better known as the killer litigator on "L.A. Law" than as an interpreter of the classics.
What distinguishes this fascinating production is less the acting - always capable, rarely inspired - than the staging by British director Richard Jones, who has turned this eccentric comedy into a magical and compelling work of living visual art.
The play's story focuses on such timeless issues as unquenchable romance and unrequited love, explored through the adventures of young Helena as she pursues an elaborate scheme to win a reluctant husband who's been promised to her by a grateful king. The narrative and dialogue are peppered with dull spots - unrequited love is a poor spectator sport if it stays unrequited too long - and producers have tended to shy away from "All's Well" in favor of more consistently poetic or humorous examples of Shakesp eare's comic art.
Instead of meeting the play on its own knotty terms, director Jones and his colleagues have steered it in unexpected directions, treating the literary text as a theatrical pretext - almost a blueprint - for their own highly original ideas.
The offbeat nature of the production is signaled by the appearance of the stage before the action even begins. Instead of the open playing area usually employed at the Delacorte, designer Stewart Laing has set up a long and shallow rectangle, with an equally long row of burning candles in front and a stretched-out oblong panel at the rear.
As wide and eye-filling as a panoramic movie screen, it's a CinemaScope stage for a production that thrives on such cinematic elements as expressionistic lighting, furnishings that appear and disappear, and scenes that dissolve into each other practically before your eyes. The anything-can-happen atmosphere is heightened by props and costumes with a storybook quality, and a pulsing music score by Jonathan Dove that combines minimalist energy with romantic emotionalism.
At the evening's best moments, these ingredients join to create a spellbinding effect that manages to be authentic Shakespeare, dreamlike fairy tale, and postmodern pastiche all at the same time.
The experimental nature of Jones's staging is proof positive that the Shakespeare Festival has not lost its adventurous spirit or its willingness to take risks in its mission of keeping the Bard's work alive and fresh for contemporary audiences.
And the success of two productions in a row shows that the festival's current management (including Kline, now serving as an associate producer) has a solid knack for finding the talent to carry out this challenging task.