You have to give credit to the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, first of all, for making “All’s Well That Ends Well” its free performance on Boston Common this summer (through Aug. 14). The main male character, Bertram, is as callow as they come. Helena, kind of a ward of his mother, tricks Bertram into wedding and bedding her. Twice.
But the play lives up to its title thanks to a pitch-perfect production. Don’t go expecting the most feel-good comedy Shakespeare has written, but artistic director Steven Maler and a superb cast make the problems in this problem play recede into the background while unleashing the full force of Shakespeare’s poetry in exquisite support of his insights into grace, love and maturity.
For those who have been around the area for a while, the first actors one notices are the American Repertory Theater alumni — Karen MacDonald, Will LeBow and Remo Airaldi. Throw in Trinity’s Fred Sullivan Jr., clown-around-town Larry Coen and a talented group of newcomers — Kersti Bryan (Helena), Nick Dillenburg (Bertram) and McCaela Donovan (Diana, with whom Bertram falls in lust) — and you have a cast that’s a joy to listen to from top to bottom. That’s not always the case with these Common productions where something always stands to stand out for the wrong reason — the overhyped big-name actor from New York, the sound, Maler’s conception.
Not this year. Maler’s direction is as sure-handed as it is bold and the choices by the design team and the selections of 20th- and 21st-century chamber music are all in service of the play’s balance of past and present. I’ve seen all but a couple of its productions, and this is the best work Commonwealth Shakespeare Company has done.
If you want that feel-good Shakespeare comedy, there’s an excellent “As You Like It” by Shakespeare & Company in Lenox (through Sept. 4). This is a troupe that nearly always gets it right, making the Bard’s Elizabethanisms seem as accessible as our more prosaic take on the language.
Shakespeare & Company all-stars Jonathan Epstein (Touchstone, the fool), Tod Randolph (Jacques) and Merritt Janson (Rosalind) all find forceful, unique resonances with their characters while first-timer Tony Roach fits right in as Orlando. The gender-bending by Randolph and Janson as women playing men is one of the many delights in a production that doesn’t shy away from the darker hues in the Forest of Arden. In sum, it’s everything we’ve come to expect from this company.
Alas, the same can’t be said for “Romeo and Juliet” (through Sept. 3), which manages to be simultaneously bland and hammy. Almost every actor in the play should be sent to Overactors Anonymous.
It’s the first production I’ve seen where I was actually rooting for the quick demise of Mercutio, Romeo’s wise-guy pal. Kevin O’Donnell’s illustrative gestures of nearly every line by Mercutio is particularly annoying. Director Daniela Varon’s contrast of the violence between the Capulets and Montagues with Shaker simplicity would have been a good one if she had a cast that could have done their parts.
At least between “All’s Well That Ends Well” in Boston and “As You Like It” in the Berkshires there’s no shortage of great Shakespeare in the state.