Girl, he's just not that into you.
The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia's third offering this 25th anniversary season is William Shakespeare' All's Well That Ends Well. This comedy is, as director Ralph Alan Cohen states in his director's notes, one of two plays in which Shakespeare seems to tell the audience how to feel about the play. Famously labeled over the centuries as a problem play, All's Well That Ends Well is a mature comedy that really posits that happily ever after is not always as happy as it seems. The acting company brings out all the comedy, romance and rich characterizations that Shakespeare created, but when all is said and done, the ending of this play is a troubling one. By choosing to not make changes to that ending to make it more satisfying, Dr. Cohen and his cast are presenting this play as Shakespeare intended. It is an evening of theater in which you may well find yourself pondering the outcome for quite some time.
The Countess of Rossillion is recently widowed and her son Bertram accedes to his father's title. Still a very young man he is made a ward of the King of France and his summoned to court. Helena, the daughter of the Countess' famed physician, also recently deceased, pines for Bertram knowing that as a poor physician's daughter she cannot hope to marry the far above her station Count. The King of France is deathly ill and has given up all hope of a cure. Helena decides to travel to the French court to cure the King using one of her father's famous remedies. The King agrees to undergo the treatment, but if Helena fails she will die. If she succeeds she may choose any of the unmarried men at court for her husband.
Helena succeeds and chooses Bertram. Bertram protests against the marriage even though the King grants Helena a rich dowry. They are married and Bertram swears that he will not consider Helena his wife unless she gets his father's ring from his finger and his pregnant with his child. Encouraged by his follower, the boastful Parolles, Bertram flees France for the war in Florence. Helena decides to follow him. There are tricks and twists before Helena gets her happy ending.
There are many delightful secondary characters in this play and it is through them that the majority of the very funny comedy ensues. The fusty old lord LaFew, wittly portrayed by Rene Thornton, Jr. matches wits with the Countess' clown, LaVatch, endearingly cute with wonderfully crisp delivery of his many, many puns by Gregory Jon Phelps. Benjamin Curns is a perfect flamboyant, cowardly braggart as Parolles. His many foibles and follies that lead to a very funny comeuppance for his character is a major highlight of the production.
Allison Glenzer is the calm, rational center as the wise Countess. Emily Brown is sweet and sly as Diana, the object of Bertram's lust in Florence. Tracie Thomason threads a careful path between being a pining lovelorn girl and a strong virtuous heroine, managing not to trespass into stalker territory. Her performance makes you believe that Helena deserves to win her love, although given what she's in love with, we still question her choice.
Dylan Paul has one of the more difficult leading man roles in Shakespeare's comedies. Face it, Bertram is a jerk. Fortunately, Dr. Cohen has his cast emphasize the many times that Shakespeare calls Bertram young and a boy. For in the text, it is clear that Bertram is a very immature young man. He is not yet, of age having been made a ward of the court. His behavior towards his forced marriage is one of the rash and the foolish and his willingness to be advised by the blowhard Parolles also shows just how immature Bertram is. Mr. Paul's Bertram still comes off as quite the charmer. It is easy to see why Helena falls in love and Diana is partly dazzled by him. Yet, it is the unpleasant aspects of Bertram's behavior that show how Mr. Bertram carefully navigates this difficult role. In the end, Helena wins him, and Mr. Paul shows appropriate remorse and love towards Ms. Thomason's Helena. The question becomes does the audience believe that all is well in the end.
William Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well is being performed at the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriar's Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia through November 29, 2013. It is being performed during the summer season in repertory with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Bob Carlton's Return to the Forbidden Planet. In the Fall these productions will be joined by Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida and Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops To Conquer. For tickets and other performance information please visit www.americanshakespearecenter.com