All’s well with “All’s Well”

Jordan Wright

Almost any production of William Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well” is bound to be problematic.

That’s because the play is, well, one of those problem plays in the Shakespeare canon — plays which are difficult to stage, about which there are critical misgivings, to say the least. To that category you could probably lend the title “lesser Shakespeare”. They don’t go down well with their after-taste and often don’t play as well as they should because lesser characters sometimes take over the play. Put “Cymbeline” on that list alongside “Pericles”. Perhaps add “Troilus and Cressida,” “Henry VIII,” and even “The Winter’s Tale,” — let alone “Timon of Athens” to which we can only say, when’s the last time you’ve seen that?

The problem with “All’s Well That Ends Well” is that it is, at its core, something on the order of “As You Like It” and “Twelfth Night,” a romantic comedy with a shining leading lady attended by swains, fools and royals. Helena, the brave, resolute, witty, and smart as anybody and more heroine, loves her man and has to have him, and with no cooperation from the hero she gets him.

The problem then is that “All’s Well” doesn’t really end well in the romance department. It clears up the plot mess the author has devised and gets the two lovers together, but somehow this resolution
doesn’t sit well with most audiences. Because the object of her affection is the hunky and high-born Count Bertram, who’s a snob, a dolt, an idiot, albeit a brave one, and a fickle swain like one of those over-tanned bachelors on reality television. He’s totally unworthy of the fair Helena, so you know they’ll have kids (evidence on stage) and remain married while making themselves miserable. All this is done just to please the King of France and Bertram’s sweet, soulful mother, the Countess of Roussillon — a devout role model and guardian of Helena.

Tell you what — forget the idiot. Much like the more self-aware courtier, liar and coward Parolles, Bertrand is an easily recognized member in good standing of the vast army of the self-absorbed Michael Kahn, who’s directed this production for the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Kahn has given it a kind of stylish authenticity in the way he treats the language of the play. This is especially true of Miriam Silverman as Helena, whose way with the rhythms and rhymes of the words give a kind of musical insistence to her character. You can fault her for her why-do-good-women-go-for-lousy-men problem, but you can’t fault her for clarity, courage, smarts and bull-headedness.

Helena, the daughter of a famed physician, comes to court and promptly cures the king of a possibly terminal ailment. In return, the grateful king offers her any husband she wants. She picks Bertram, who is so mortified that he goes off to the wars in Italy and leaves Helena with a challenge; she will never be a true wife unless she gets his family ring off his finger or conceives a child by him, two things he vows will never happen.

Don’t ever challenge a woman to do the impossible. It’s a cinch. How she does it is one of those wonderful tricks that occur in many of Shakespeare’s comedies and romances, without anybody batting an eye (see “Pericles”, see “Winter’s Tale”). But proceedings are helped by the tolerance and love of the adults, Ted van Griethuysen as the French King, and Marsha Mason as the Countess. They provide a portrait of paternal and maternal affection rare in the theater. In the French king’s case, it’s not only good to be king, but it’s better to be a good king.

And there is Paxton Whitehead as the aristocratic court member Lafew, who’s acerbic wit is matched only by his kind patience toward the impossible Parolles, a man of whom it is noted that “he knows who he is, and is STILL who he is.” As played by Michael Bakkensen, self-awareness is Parolles’ saving grace, that, and a complete lack of any sense of shame.

“All’s Well” ends well because it has to. The play itself is better than just well — it is stylish, acted with panache where appropriate and authenticity by the company. The shortcomings of the play, well, just say author. (“All’s Well That Ends Well” runs at the Shakespeare Theater Company’s Lansburgh Theater through October 24).

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