NEW YORK — Bill this midsummer card as an Elizabethan throwdown: the Royal Shakespeare Company versus the New York Shakespeare Festival. Virtually within earshot of each other, Britain’s bastion of Bard-dom and Manhattan’s warm-weather outlet for iambic pentameter are presenting a passel of plays, and in the process begging for some comparing of contemporary national styles for playing Shakespeare.
And here are the shocking early returns: These rounds go to the Yanks. With its one-two punch of “Measure for Measure” and, even more incandescently, “All’s Well That Ends Well,” the Joseph Papp Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park is offering a pair of more supple and provocative evenings than the initial two RSC presentations at the Park Avenue Armory of “As You Like It” and “Romeo and Juliet.”
I’ll grant you that it’s a dicey business, generalizing too broadly from a few productions. Still, experiencing this quartet of Shakespearean nights does turn conventional wisdom on its head. Many of us — nourished by a golden generation of stars with names like McKellen and Dench — have been so conditioned to regard British Shakespeare as the superior invention that we’ve tended to think of the American version as lacking some genetic adhesion to the verse and its myriad shadings of meanings.
I’ve seen enough American Shakespeare now, courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company and other organizations, to understand that my early prejudices were based on a lack of adequate exposure. It remains apparent that for inspired direction, the ranks of Shakespeare interpreters in this country could be fuller. Actors here, though, have embraced the Bard with ever more impressive energy, subtlety and confidence. And when guided by a serious director, whether it’s Robert Falls for tragedy, Michael Kahn for comedy or Daniel Sullivan for a knotty problem play, the results are as persuasive as anything from the opposite side of the pond.
The surest support for this assertion is provided by Sullivan, who at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater has staged “All’s Well” — one of Shakespeare’s most peculiarly plotted works — as a compellingly complex romance with a moving core. It’s the best of the four nights. By virtue of the production, Sullivan, director of last summer’s altogether commanding “Merchant of Venice” with Al Pacino, ascends categorically to the top tier of American Shakespeare directors. Though he had a bad Broadway run-in several years ago with “Julius Caesar,” starring a wooden Denzel Washington, he demonstrates with his “All’s Well” that any time you assert that a given Shakespeare work is unwatchable, it just means the right production hasn’t come along.
This is the right “All’s Well.” It’s one of Shakespeare’s more perverse takes on love: Helena (a beguiling Annie Parisse) has her heart set on Bertram (the born Shakespearean, Andre Holland), who seems to detest her. For the next 2 3
hours, Helena wages the sort of single-minded pursuit — in bedrooms and across battlefields — that would have exhausted the rabbit-boiling Glenn Close of “Fatal Attraction.”