note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Lynn Heinemann
All's Well That Ends Well"
Commonwealth Shakespeare Company
July 27-August 14
Boston Common Parkman Bandstand
(Seen July 31, 2011)
In bringing Shakespeare's works to the masses, the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's (CSC) free outdoor shows offer top-notch acting and stellar production values.
The company's strengths include the clarity that the performers bring to the Shakespearean language, making each speech and pronouncement sound modern and natural.
The set for this year's production of "All's Well That Ends Well," designed by Jon Savage is remarkable in its simplicity and multi-functionality. Angular gray shard-like pieces form the backdrop, a balcony provides levels to the action, and screens open up to present tableau-like images as the actors enter. A turntable adds motion to the scenes, and a series of holes in that turntable offers a place to plant set pieces that range from a clothesline to an army field tent to chandeliers at court to trees behind which to hide.
What the production can't overcome are the inconsistencies inherent in the plot and characters of "All's Well That Ends Well," one of Shakespeare's so-called "problem plays."
The sound design, by David Remedios, is taut, dramatic and almost melancholy, capturing the uneasy amalgamation of what Steven Maler in his program notes calls a combination of "tragic, comedic, fairy tale, bildungsroman and quest narrative conventions into a unique -- and shockingly modern-- story."
Our heroine and hero hardly live up to those characterizations.
Where the humbly-born orphaned Helena (Kersti Bryan) is conceived as a heroine of action, intelligence, and gumption, by today's standards she is a manipulative, devious, and selfish brat.
Meanwhile, the higher-born object of her affection, Bertram (Nick Dillenburg), is a loutish, disrespectful, and cruel snob.
Although the Countess, Bertram's mother (who is also Helena's guardian), advises Bertram in the very first scene to "Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none," he disregards her counsel at every chance.
In fact, the Countess, warmly and sympathetically played by Karen MacDonald, and Will LeBow's King of France, regal and dignified even when bed-ridden with an apparently fatal fistula, are the most admirable characters of the play. The Countess is open and loving while the King is the most democratic of monarchs.
When Helena, the daughter of a renowned deceased physician, uses her father's medicines to cure the king, she asks that her reward be the right to marry any nobleman she chooses.
Poor Bertram, surprised that he'd been made the prize, rejects Helena, citing the disparities in their social station.
The king, highest of the nobility, scoffs at this snobbery, telling Bertram, " 'Tis only lack of title thou disdain'st in her, the which I can build up," offering to bestow on Helena the rank and wealth that Bertram seems to require.
Wanting none of it, Bertram refuses to live with his wife and sends Helena back to his mother's house, with a letter with the damning words, "When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband."
Abandoning her and his mother, Bertram runs away to Florence to fight in the Tuscan wars, vowing never to return, " 'Til I have no wife."
Since this is a comedy, where all must end well, Helena ultimately wins Bertram. Having followed him to Florence she convinces the Widow Capilet (Siobhan Juanita Brown) to let her use her daughter Diana (McCaela Donovan), the young lady that Bertram has been wooing, to trick Bertram. Diana seduces him, deceiving Bertram out of his ring and into her bed, where Helena has substituted herself.
Thus, Helena gains the ring and the child to capture her husband, who, when confronted with these facts, promises, "I'll love her dearly, ever ever dearly."
Hardly a match made in heaven!
However sitting on the lawn of the Boston Common, enjoying the sunset, and the crisp performances on stage, is heaven indeed.