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A CurtainUp Review
All's Well That Ends Well
No Shakespearean play better fits this description than All's Well That Ends Well, a complex combination of folk tales, romance elements and misogynist sentiments which probably challenges modern audiences much more than the ones who first viewed it centuries ago. For them, concerns over an intelligent but low-born woman who intentionally throws herself at an arrogant and uncaring man were probably insignificant; for us, the objections to such behavior are far stronger, and make modern performances of the work a tricky business. The Theatre For A New Audience is to be commended, then, for continuing its practice of taking on the most difficult Shakespearean works (Coriolanus, another complex and seldom performed play, was the company's offering last year) with its flawed but often beautifully rendered production of All's Well That Ends Well at The Duke On 42nd Street theater.
The play's plot seems to have all the elements of tragedy from its beginning. Helena, sensitively and compellingly played by Kate Forbes, is a low-born waiting-woman who has fallen in love with the handsome Count of Rossillion, Bertram (played by Lucas Hall) of the household where she serves. Bertram's father has died, however, and anxious for excitement the young Count sets off to serve the king of France (George Morfogen) who is in declining health. Helena secretly follows Bertram and offers to cure the king with methods left her by her father (a doctor), and after the cure works the grateful king offers Helena any reward. She asks for a husband-specifically Bertram-and the king compels Bertram to marry her, despite the Count's obvious distaste for the unequal match. Bertram flees at his earliest opportunity for Florence, Helena follows, and the real meat of the play begins.
Beyond the complexity of the story, the fact that a beautiful and intelligent woman like Helena is so infatuated with a repulsively cruel and prideful character like Bertram is deeply disturbing…and the way in which she goes about trying to win him back even more so, a feeling reflected in both the set (designed by David P. Gordon) and sound (designed by the Aural Fixation company) of the production. The beautifully sung solo and duet which begins the show is shattered by a teeth rattling organ blast, and from this point onward a low but clearly discernable note, reflective of the troubling undercurrent of cruelty and disdain in the play, is held for the remainder of the production. Meanwhile, a black and white marble set highlights the definitive class distinctions held so rigidly by Bertram-and the spotlight's focus on a small table on which a naked human statuette of antiquity stands, paralleling Helena's own obsession with the young Count, is a nice touch (in fact the lighting, designed by Rui Rita, is well conceived throughout the show). The costumes, somewhere from mid-nineteenth century France, are also well done…though I'm not sure why Helena's outfit at the end of the play has to be quite that hot pink.
But of course Shakespeare's plays have always relied on his ideas and his language, and here the burden must fall on the director and actors to convey them appropriately. Director Darko Tresnjak, who has garnered quite a bit of attention for his work at Williamstown and as Artistic Director of the Old Globe Shakespeare Festival in San Diego, obviously knows what he wants to accomplish here, and his methods lead to mixed results. He quite rightly views All's Well That Ends Well's comic elements as subservient to the play's more serious goals, and the comic scenes (and characters) are heavily muted here as a consequence. This unquestionably lends the play more dramatic weight, but it also gives it a kind of bleak relentlessness which is hard to watch for two hours at a clip. It additionally has the effect, in the first half of the production especially, of putting a significant drag on the show's energy. Actors sometimes deliver their lines as if reading from teleprompters-absolutely accurate and clear, but not overly interesting-and by the time the intermission comes, the audience stands to stretch with palpable relief.
The second act's pace is much better (partially because the comic scenes are more purely rendered, especially those with Parolles, Bertram's cowardly and roguish servant played excellently by Adam Stein), and by the time the final scene arrives, we have been drawn into the powerful emotional resonance of the story. There are moments of sheer brilliance; for example, when Helena, in a perfectly paced scene, takes a small rocking horse from her purse and places it on the bench between herself and her estranged husband, indicative both of the impending arrival of their first child and their own troubled relationship, we know we are in the hands of a real directorial talent.
How much the actors are able to absorb and present of Tresnjak's vision varies wildly from performer to performer, and it's here where the production faces its greatest problems. Laurie Kennedy plays the role of the Countess of Rossillion, Bertram's mother, competently and convincingly, and when she is working with Forbes's Helena or Stein's Parolles (and Stein really is funny) the result is a high-quality performance. Much more often, unfortunately, she is on stage either with Lafew (played by Tom Bloom respectably but flatly), Lavatch (played by John Christopher Jones) or Bertram, and in these cases there is little she can do to save the scene. Jones absolutely misses the point of Lavatch's bitter foolery, and watching someone who reminded me of a cross between Mel Brooks and Wilford Brimley try to deliver Shakespearean lines of satiric bite is painful. Hall, meanwhile, is simply not up to the role of Bertram, and it's hard to buy into the portrayal of a character whose performer is repeatedly outacted by everyone else on stage. Morfogen, whose reputation precedes him, delivers an oddly wooden French king…except for those moments when he is intended to be angry, at which times his portrayal crackles with authoritative life. The rest of the cast is competent, and with a couple of exceptions fill out the play nicely. It's a shame that the major performances are so inconsistent.
But despite these problems, the Theatre For A New Audience's All's Well That Ends Well still works, and Kate Forbes is a major reason why. Her Helena is so sensitive, intelligent and articulate that even if we don't understand what she sees in Bertram, we understand that she sees something, and in some ways that's enough. Tresnjak's vision is not an unproblematic one, and his show is not perfect. But given the issues any critic or director will have wrestling with in a "problem play" like this one, the fact that he has a vision at all, and is able with the help of an excellent set, sound, and a strong lead performance to stage it convincingly, is itself an impressive achievement.
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