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A CurtainUp Review
All's Well That Ends Well
By Elyse Sommer
Director Normi Noel and her cast of eight have bravely embarked on their own telling of All's Well That Ends Well, the Shakespeare romantic comedy that's best known for it's much quoted title. Not only has this light-hearted tale all too often not played well, but has in fact played less often than much else in the Shakespeare canon.
The play's central romantic figures, a young nobleman and an orphaned commoner, are just a few years older than Romeo and Juliet. Their romance, like that of the famous and much loved heirs to the Capulet and Montague fortunes, also promises to be star-crossed. However, the obstacle to their happiness stems from the fact that this is a one-sided love affair. Being a comedy, (albeit with serious undercurrents), Bertram comes around and All's Well does indeed live up to its title. Yet, both of these lovers have steadfastly eluded audience sympathy.
The basic problem is that Bertram is not a likeable hero. Sure, the King of France oversteps his power by forcing him to marry when he's obviously unwilling and unready. But this does little to mitigate his shallow superiority early on in the play, and the later bent for womanizing which makes his emotional turnaround less than fully convincing. In short, what we have is a young man who comes across as hardly worth all the trouble Helena goes through to have him.
The character of Helena is equally problematic. Her love for a man who rejects her hints at sexual passion underneath her pure and meek exterior. At the same time her willingness to use trickery to bring him to her bed raises yet another question -- whether her pursuit of Bertram's love might not in fact be motivated by the desire to better herself socially.
Ms. Noel's aim in this latest in Shakespeare & Company's Bare Bard series, is to "release" Bertram and Helena from what she sees as a "silence" or inability to speak their true feelings. Drawing on Boccaccio whose The Decameron inspired All's Well That Ends Well . She writes about empowering Helena (and other women of her time) to act on "the flames of passion within their fragile (read 'intact') breasts." To free Bertram from coming off as a supercilious young prig, she hopes to transform his silence at the end of the play into a more electrically charged moment of a boy becoming a man "When he meets the small boy within himself."
It's quite a task she's set herself and the cast. I can't say that she or they quite succeed in bringing it off..
What she has accomplished is a trim fluidly paced and completely accessible two hours and twenty minutes (with intermission). Her use of the Third Day in The Decameron as a prologue works very well on the intimate Stable stage. The actors enter as if they indeed are that book's band of story tellers who have slipped away from fourteenth century plague-ridden Florence to a beautiful Tuscan villa's walled garden (evoked in typical Bare Bard simplicity by a few flowered trellises). The two scenes in which Helena (Elizabeth Aspenlieder) and Bertram (Dan McLeary) slowly circle each other in a measured dance do convey some of this language of silence that will allow them to overcome the constraints of the social attitudes and emotional restraints that have heretofore made an all's well that end's well ending unlikely. The rest of the time Bertram remains an elusively tough to crack character. Elizabeth Aspenlieder, while wonderful and moving in expressing her vulnerability, is somewhat less persuasive as the determined and, if need be ruthless "woman for all ages" -- a Shakespearian steel magnolia.
And so score a big plus for the use of the Decameron as a story frame. Score another plus for the choreographed interaction as a step in the right direction for giving emotional meaning to Bertram's inability to give voice to the stirring of his heart. For the minus side of the ledger, there's the fortunately brief interlude when Ms. Noel opts to give the play the audience participation. treatment. While the several young men called upon to participate at the performance I attended seemed to enjoy being singled out, this practice often embarrasses others and in a theater this intimate, seems an unnecessary attempt to break down of the fourth wall that figuratively separates actors and audience. (At least the actors don't ask these audience draftees to dance, as Allan Cumming as the MC in Cabaret does -- see link at end).
The above departures from the norm are coupled with the small cast and minimalist staging that typify Shakespeare & Company's Bare Bard series. Otherwise, this All's Well follows Shakespeare's plot pretty closely:
Helena, orphaned and without title, has fallen in love with the son of her benefactor, the Countess of Rossillion (Christine Adaire). After Helena has used the knowledge gained from her doctor father to cure the King of France (John Douglas Thompson) from a deadly disease, the king, to whom she confides her love for Bertram, masterminds a marriage. Along the journey from forced, unconsummated marriage to the all's well ending we see the Countess becoming Helena's staunch supporter and Bertram's roguish friend Parolles (Jonathan Croy) being taught a lesson. If the company ever decides to deconstruct this play with Parolles as the central figure, as some companies have occasionally done, Croy could easily handle such a star turn.
Other contributors to the comedy and intrigue are an old lord named Lafew (EZPine), Lavatch (John Beale), a clown in the Countess' household, and Diana (Karen Torbojonsen) who plays a major role in the rather fantastical switch of bed partners towards the end. All are solid actors who speak Shakespeare's many lovely lines, if not majestically, with great clarity and feeling. Their ensemble excellence goes far to make not just the end but all of All's Well That Ends Well well worth seeing.
For a previous Bare Bard series review, see Winter's Tale
For all CurtainUp Shakespeare reviews see ourA-Z (by author) Master Index of reviews
For a review of the Broadway production of Cabaret go here
For more comments about Fourth Wall crumbling read "Goodbye 1997-1998, Hello 1998-1999" .
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© 1998, Elyse Sommer.