All's Well That Ends Well
nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
February 11, 2006
Theatre for a New Audience’s current All’s Well That Ends Well is a competent production performed by a company of capable actors that is worth seeing. Apparently set some time in the late 19th or early 20th century (the program is not specific on this point, but the costumes suggest this time frame), this interpretation by director Darko Tresnjak is entertaining though not particularly illuminating and occasionally confusing. In New York City competent Shakespeare is certainly worth a view, though I hardly think it is cause for celebration.
When first seated at the Duke Theater, we are confronted with a Greco-Roman edifice, in grays and black, with many columns and somber curtains. It is an elegant formal setting, designed by David P. Gordon. This sets the tone for Tresnjak’s interpretation of this comedy, a tone that pervades this production all too darkly. The lighting, designed by Rui Rita, is generally moody throughout the performance and sometimes harsh, primarily using side lighting that at times creates sinister shadows on the actors’ facial planes. This, too, seems to serve Tresnjak’s dark vision.
But is this vision the play? I think this darkness only serves the post-funereal ambience of the first scene. Only at the end of the first part, when we “travel” to Italy, do the design elements open up a bit and does Tresnjak give us a cheeky, fun event. Yet this is really a fleeting moment. Yes, while we are in Italy the somber curtains are gone, revealing some architectural archetypes in two dimensions upstage, but there remain the formal columns, the black and gray tones. I really think a simpler setting would have been better. And I keep coming back to the fact that it is a comedy. Where is the color? Where are the front lights? This tension between setting and text is what I find confusing—not intellectually, of course, but thematically. Julius Caesar would love this set!
Unfortunately there are no murders here, just unrequited love that is eventually requited, to a degree. The story revolves around Helena, the daughter of a recently deceased and renowned healer, who is obsessively in love with Bertram, the young Count Rossillion, who is the son of the late Count, the latter having been the patron of Helena’s father. When Bertram runs off to the French court, Helena follows, ostensibly to heal the King’s “severe” disease (he suffers from a fistula). When Helena cures the King, her reward is her choice of young men in the court for her betrothed. Naturally she chooses Bertram, who has no intention of getting hitched to anyone. Bertram flees to the wars in Florence, leaving behind an oath to never be Helena’s unless she gets from him his ring and by him his child. A chase, a bed-switch, and some hilarity with the secondary plot (Parolles, a braggart-soldier, is given his comeuppance) follow. Finally, Helena gets her man, though the text leaves it ambiguous as to how they will fare.
The cast is comprised of excellent actors, every one. The younger characters are without exception believable and enjoyable to watch. Adam Stein’s Parolles is perfect. Equally effective are both Dumaine brothers, played by Thomas Michael Hammond and Paul Niebanck. Space limits my naming the rest but they do all make it fun. On the older side, Tom Bloom, as Lefew, the wise lord with a heart of gold and a twinkle in his eye, shows us the best of what an American Shakespearean can be—true to character, emotionally connected, with a facile ability to speak the verse.
I do quibble with three performances, though. Laurie Kennedy is absolutely believable as the Countess of Rossillion, which ought to come as no surprise since she is an accomplished Shakespearean. However, she delivers her lines too slowly and carefully, with the result that we get ahead of her thoughts. Likewise, John Christopher Jones presents a wry, measured clown, Lavatch, which is incipiently delightful, but he seizes upon this one note of internal rhythm and the comedy wanes. As the ill King of France, George Morfogen leaves no doubt he is on Death’s door. What he lacks in the beginning is at least a glimmer of the marvelous King we see once he is cured. I have no doubt these veterans understand that Shakespeare’s characters are complex creations demanding attention to nuance. I have a feeling more will come with the playing of it.
Some call All’s Well That Ends Well a problem play. This does not mean that it is a play that is difficult to deal with, but one whose subject matter concerns a problem of conduct or social relationship. But this sounds like Shaw, not Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s plays are often problem plays in one context or another, but they are complex creations, which can sometimes be a problem to present.
The main problem with All’s Well That Ends Well for a modern audience is the relationship between the main characters Helena and Bertram. Why does Helena choose Bertram? Why does Bertram reject Helena? Tresnjak explains the latter by giving us an adolescent Bertram who is at the age for oat-sowing, not marriage-vowing. Though Lucas Hall ably portrays this teenage protagonist, his Bertram makes it very difficult for us to understand the other problem: why would Helena choose such a whiny boy-man? So, in Tresnjak’s world, the first question really goes unanswered: Helena loves Bertram because she loves him. Period. Luckily, in Kate Forbes we have a marvelously engaging Helena who has a riveting presence. In fact, with this attractive Helena, we must wonder why in heck Bertram doesn’t want her.
My problem with this production is that I did not come away with a reason as to why Tresnjak set the play in the period he did. Yes, Helena is like a suffragette in her take-charge stick-to-itiveness. She is like a Shavian heroine, so it does make some sense to use Shaw’s time period. Yet does it illuminate the text? There is also some dangerous unintended imagery. Regardless of how correct Linda Cho’s costumes are (and some of them are stunning, particularly Helena’s final gown), the resonances we see can jolt us out of the play: when Helena appears at Court with her carpetbag she looks like Mary Poppins, or, add some dirt on her face and she could be Eliza Doolittle in Shaw’s Pygmalion. Also, I don’t see the significance of the period with respect to the War element: the uniforms may be accurate, but they remind me of Arms and the Man (Shaw again!). Does this give insight into Shakespeare’s comedy?
Adding to my problem, director Tresnjak and designer Gordon give us signifiers that are either never explained or come out of nowhere. Why, for example, is there a classical statuette on the table downstage right? Why also, are we subjected to a post-script coda featuring a toy we’ve never seen? How much more significant would that toy have been if it had been invested with some emotional weight as an object of importance in prior scenes?
All in all, you will not feel like you wasted your money if you see this production. Perhaps my quibbles are minor in an age when we are lucky to get a Shakespeare play acted with uniform clarity that is on the whole entertaining. I just feel we shouldn’t be settling for competence. Tresnjak is a gifted director who, in this All’s Well That Ends Well, shows us signs of brilliance. He ought to be able to give us more. No problem.