All's Well That Ends Well
nytheatre.com review by Lynn Marie Macy
June 24, 2011
All’s Well That Ends Well is the first offering to open this summer in Central Park and this production is well worth a visit.
This is often called one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays (along with Measure for Measure, the Public Theater’s other offering this summer) because stylistically the play seems to be at battle with itself. Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy? Is it both? It may be more useful to think of these plays as Shakespeare’s “modern” plays because if you approach them like any other contemporary play you may achieve the success director Daniel Sullivan does now at the Delacorte.
Sullivan’s charming All’s Well is set in an “Edwardian” Era France with a First World War twist. Helena, a poor physician's daughter, is in love with Bertram, the Count of Rousillion, a young, shallow, class-conscious cad. The Countess and her household are in mourning because Bertram’s father has died. He is sent to the King in Paris for the remainder of his minority. The King is mortally ill and Helena realizes she can cure him as she has inherited her father’s knowledge and healing skills and she follows him there. Helena requests Bertram for her husband as her reward for curing the King and they are married. Bertram refuses to love a poor physician's daughter and runs away to the Florentine wars to avoid his obligations. Helena follows and sets about the tasks he has unwittingly set for her to win his love.
Like all of Shakespeare’s plays, All’s Well That Ends Well is more than its obvious plot points, and layers of meaning unfold before us. The play can be viewed as a series of journeys—literal and symbolic for Shakespeare’s main characters as they travel across Europe—indeed, there is much imagery relating to their diverse journeys; Helena (a determined and true Annie Parisse) disguises herself as a woman on a religious pilgrimage when she follows Bertram (an impressionable yet stubborn André Holland) to Florence; Parolles (the outstanding Reg Rogers), Bertram’s fellow soldier and his worst influencer, is called a “vagabond and not a true traveler” by Lord Lafew, the prime courtier to the King of France (magnificently embodied by Dakin Matthews); and Bertram’s transformation by experience from foolish, gullible boy into a better wiser man, are just a few examples. Many scholars also view All’s Well as Shakespeare’s allegory for Christianity: the good Helena, Shakespeare’s Christ-like figure, heals the sick, wins the hearts of the populace, sacrifices herself, “dies” for love, is resurrected, and redeems Bertram who at last believes in her and leaves his sinful past behind him. In the end, like The Tempest, this is a play of forgiveness and reconciliation. So really, what’s the problem?
Sullivan has assembled an outstanding cast and other performance highlights include John Cullum as the ailing King of France, who is also transformed by Helena to health and vigor; Tonya Pinkins as the strong and noble Countess of Rousillion; Kristen Connolly as Diana, as the object of Bertram’s baser affections; and Carson Elrod as the hilarious “Interpreter” in the scene in which Parolles is exposed for the dishonest coward he is.
Scott Pask’s clever set design is versatile and visually attractive, easily shifting scenes from Rousillion to France to the battlefields of Florence and back again with assistance from Peter Kaczorowski’s mood-clarifying lighting. The costumes by Jane Greenwood are lovely and in particular the green-hued tea gowns in the opening scene create a stunning visual treat against the natural setting in the park. Original music by Tom Kitt wonderfully enhances the proceedings and Sullivan’s direction is inventive, well paced, and detailed. The one area Sullivan goes astray, which mars the production, is in his interpretation and presentation of Helena as an unattractive, wilting wallflower. Nowhere in the text is Helena said to be unappealing. In fact, she is often referred to as “pretty” and “fair.” Her courage, intelligence, and success in her “profession” are obvious (which Sullivan here treats a bit too cavalierly). Bertram’s rejection of her has more to do with her low-born status and his intimidation faced with her superior intellect and accomplishments. No one knows Bertram better than Helena and her ability to see the good in him throughout his bad behavior is what finally wins him. He isn’t the only wayward fellow scared off by a powerhouse of a woman.
Despite this bump, the production truly pleases and I would recommend this show to anyone interested in a lovely evening out of doors enjoying a most entertaining evening of theater. Press information calls the play “a fairy-tale for grownups” and indeed it is, but it’s also great destination for the entire family.