3/10/2021     ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL                    Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse


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I haven’t seen All’s Well That Ends Well since the Tavern’s 2003 production, and my reaction then was an honest “Meh.”  The play has some (almost) irredeemable issues, and the production itself was on the “just adequate” side of the engagement scale.  More to the point, the final scene, much of it redundant plot recap, was an over-long trial to my (even then) aging bladder.


Thankfully, the Tavern’s new video production is stream-lined to a brisk less-then-two hours, is directed with style and energy by the talented Chris Hecke and features a cast whose performances gleefully conquer the “problems” scholars assign to the original text.


Let’s start with a plot recap, because odds are this is a title most of you have never encountered, either on-stage or in a library or class. 


Helena is the humble ward of the Countess of Roussillon.  She loves Bertram, the Countess’s son, beyond all reason or hope of requitement.  He is, after all, the son of a Count while she is merely the daughter of a common (and deceased) physician.  When Bertram goes off to serve the King of France (currently suffering a usually-mortal fistula {shudder}), Helena follows in hopes of using her father’s knowledge to cure the King’s condition. 


What follows is a maelstrom of complications and adventures and betrayals and even a round of “musical beds” designed to meet Bertram’s unmeetable prerequisites to accept Helena as a wife.


The main “problem” with the play is that Helena is pursuing a callow young man with nothing to recommend him, with nary a single favorable aspect-of-character.  How are we supposed to care if she succeeds (or not hope that she fails)?  How are we supposed to ever accept Bertram is a worthy “object of affection” when he is totally in the thrall of his lieutenant, the ever-conniving, never-honest Parolles?


Let’s start with Kati Grace Brown’s Helena.  When we first meet her, supposedly in mourning for her father, she is looking a Bertram with the hungry gaze of a puppy pondering a Beggin’ Strip™.  She is sassy and wry and intelligent, and we immediately accept not only her passion, but we start the play “on her side.”  Because at this stage, Bertram doesn’t seem so bad.  He is fine of face and virile of calf, and he willingly accepts his duty to the king.  As played by a Fabio-coifed Sean Kelly (Iago in last month’s Othello), he seems to have escaped from the cover of a paperback romance novel.  And we know from the start that Helena (more or less) grew up with him, that her affection is long-standing, and that it will brook no barrier.


By the time Bertram shows us his true off-colors, we not only hope for Helena’s success, but we nurse a residual hope for Bertram’s redemption.  Because by that time, we’ve seen Helena’s cleverness (yes, she quickly dispatches the King’s fistula and wins the right to whichever French Courtier she wants as husband).  And to be honest, we’re a little sorry to see Bertram being compelled into marriage he doesn’t want. 


Next, let’s talk about Parolles, sublimely played by O’Neil Delapenha (director of last month’s Othello).  He wins us over at the start with his whimsy and rascality, venting against virginity and encouraging the chaste Helena to lose hers ASAP.  As the play continues, that rascality smoothly segues into base cowardice and betrayal, until he is finally exposed to the disbelieving Bertram.  This is a multi-layered performance of a multi-layered character, and his part in the plot(s) is surprisingly compelling.


Now let’s talk about the direction.  In his program notes, Mr. Hecke describes how he wants to get at the “Spirit and Heart” of these characters, irrespective of how we perceive them on the surface.  Accordingly, he has cast a bearded Charlie Thomas as the Countess, who immediately wins us over with (his? her?) their devotion to both Helena and Bertram.  Conversely, the lovely and talented Destiny Freeman portrays the very male LeFeau with manly demeanor and attitude.  J.L. Reed, Mary Ruth Ralston, and Patty de la Garza fill many roles, male and female, and, as with Mr. Thomas and Ms. Freeman, get quickly to the spirit and heart of each.  And ALL are directed to go “over the top” to find the extremes in each scene, to go boldly bigger than any cast has gone before.  And it works.  Rapturously, sublimely so.  I found especially giggly every moment when the King (an as-expected hilarious Nick Faircloth) has an entrance, always accompanied by an anachronistic movie theme (including Superman, 2001, and New York New York). 


Finally let’s talk about that final scene.  Stripped of its redundant plot recap, it is a very contemporary-feeling #MeToo moment, as Bertram faces the king and the woman he wooed and wronged; only to hear him say it, she was a strumpet of long (dis)repute, bought and paid for.  Of course we know that she is chaste and honest, and Bertram is a lying cad.  (I’ll let you discover for yourself the “musical beds” episode that sets up this scene, because it is an honest joy to discover).


But the truth will eventually out, all is revealed, and Bertram accepts Helena as his wife (No Spoiler – the title of the play tells you this has to happen).  But is he happy about it?  Well, he has known Helena most of his life and only objected to her because of her “lowly status,” which has changed.  Now he sees how cleverly she duped him, how worthy of respect she has become, and how she is actually carrying his child.  Although Mr. Kelly keeps his demeanor ambivalent here, I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, that even if he isn’t over-the-moon ecstatic now, he (maybe) eventually will be -- once the reality of life with Helena takes root.


This is perhaps the perfect way to become acquainted with this play.  It is energetic and funny, the cross-gender casting adds enough wit to keep us amused, the plot is clear and easy to follow, and the characters, even with their blind passions and obsessions, are relatable and compelling.


Most to the point, the production captures the Spirit of the piece with enough Heart to overcome all the dry scholarly objections to the play’s “problems.”


--  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #AllsWellThatEndsWell   #ShakespeareTavern)