Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well at Lenox

David Begelman

Will Shakespeare, like most of us, had his slumps. All’s Well That Ends Well, one of his dark comedies, was probably written somewhere between 1600 and 1605. It was authored between two worthier creations, Twelfth Night and Measure For Measure, and is overly long, bursting with contrived and not especially admirable characters, and calls out loud and clear for directorial relief.

All’s Well That Ends Well also has the distinction of being a rarely staged play. Its revivals are eagerly awaited to see what new spin an enterprising director will put on it to redeem it.

Director Tina Packer, the guiding light of Shakespeare and Company, the impressive area theater with a home in Lenox, Massachusetts, has opted to do just this. It is part of her announced goal to produce all the plays in the Shakespearean canon.

Her effort in this case must be reckoned only partially successful. Lesser works in the canon like Timon of Athens, Titus Andronicus, and All’s Well That Ends Well take only band-aid relief, at best. When it comes to shoring up quality, in the final analysis “The play’s the thing,” as one of the bard’s most notable characters observed.

All’s Well That Ends Well concerns the efforts of Helena, a low-born daughter of a deceased physician, to land her man. He is Bertram (played convincingly and unobtrusively by Jason Asprey), the son of deceased Count Rossillion. Helena (played with ardor in a youngish portrayal by Kristin Villaneuva), is a gentlewoman in the household of the Countess of Rossilion (played exceptionally well, and with an accomplished matriarchal flair by Elisabeth Ingram).

Helena has a secret passion for the young nobleman, and pursues him with determination. At the court of the King of France (played in a royal, if somewhat stilted, manner by Timothy Douglas), our heroine’s medical expertise is recruited to cure the potentate’s grave illness. Some Shakespearean scholars have surmised this must have been an anal fistula. Not the last of the down and dirty scenarios in this drama.

In return for his new bill of health, the King awards Helena the husband of her choice. She chooses Bertram, who is so outraged at being saddled with someone below his social station, he promptly takes off for the wars in Tuscany. Accompanying him is his cowardly, bragging companion, Parolles, played to the hilt in an overly foppish way by Kevin O’Donnell. In the past, it was one of Sir Laurence Olivier’s roles.

Bertram, as if to place as many impediments in the way of a match engineered by others, forecasts: “When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband” (Act III, Scene ii). Talk about stumbling blocks and a girl’s impossible dreams.

On military maneuvers in Italy, Bertram is no slouch when it comes to hitting on camp-followers. He connects with a comely Florentine lass, Diana, upon whom he bestows the ring in question. Except Diana (played attractively by Brittany Morgan) arranges with Helena, who has spread a rumor of her death, a nighttime substitution of the latter for herself in Bertram’s bed. Diana also slips Helena the ring, and the bait-and-switch scenario is finalized.

Sexual exchange ruses come right out of Boccaccio’s Decamaron, the bawdy tales that were the original source of Shakespeare’s plot, courtesy of Palace of Pleasure by the Brit William Painter, who translated the Italian’s works into English.

The final discovery scene has Helena appearing in court as if risen from the dead, and pregnant with Bertram’s child. The ring is also produced (in the event a resurrection and a pregnancy weren’t enough to persuade), and Bertram falls to his knees, contrite over how he could have been so mistaken about the identity of his true love, promising to: “love her dearly, ever, ever dearly” (Act V, Scene iii). Believable he’s not; perpetual adolescent, he is.

Everyone lives happily ever after, including the King with reassembled fundament and the suddenly reformed Parolles. Had enough?

Tina Packer has devised a stunning method of brightening the action of the play. This included heightening its farcical elements, a trend initiated by David Garrick in 1756. She has cast an exceptionally talented member of her company, Nigel Gore (in past seasons a commanding Marc Antony and a hilarious Nick Bottom), in the role of Lavache, whom she turns into a troubadour in the court of Rossilion.

Stepping out of character, Lavache sings songs gleaned by the director from the Shakespearean canon, as well as older troubadour works. These are accompanied by off stage musicians on a variety of instruments.

Mr. Gore is not always on pitch, and his vocal stamina seems to weaken the more he sings, but he is impressively utilized, all the same. His humorous scenes as Lavache, and his repartee with the talented Elisabeth Ingram as the Countess, were for this reviewer the most accomplished acting in the production.

The second act of the play—no reflection on Ms. Packer, whom we can envision struggling to brighten things up in a script notorious for its artificiality—had its tedious moments.

When all is said and done, all’s not well that ends, because all doesn’t end that well. But if you’re looking for someone to blame, it’s Will, not Tina.

All’s Well That Ends Well opened at Shakespeare and Company’s Founders theatre on June 20, 2008, and continues to August 31, 2008. Evening performances are at 8:00 p.m. and matinees are at 3:00 p.m. Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at (413)-637-3353 or on the website at www.shakespeare.org.

This review appears in New Fairfield’s Citizen News

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