Despite being the only Shakespeare play with a direct title drop, any production of All’s Well That Ends Well that agrees with Helena’s statement has to work as hard as she does to convince the audience that she is correct in her assumption. The Philadelphia Artists’ Collective addresses the twisted plots and character arcs that landed All’s Well its classification as a problem play head on, throwing their support behind Helena with skill and sensitivity.
Director Dan Hodge accomplishes this by putting the focus firmly on the text and the actors. The theater-in-the-round setup has no dressing and minimal props, and the close proximity of the audience encourages subtle acting and magnifies strong emotions. The Victorian setting is a good match for the play’s preoccupation with class distinctions and sexual mores, lending an effective historical distance while still allowing the action to be relatable. This setting is established almost entirely through costume designer Katherine Fritz’s striking reproductions of nineteenth-century dress. The rich fabrics with a subdued color palette draw attention to the characters but do not distract from them. Parolles is still the flashiest dresser, but this is accomplished through his cravat, top hat, and the maroon of his waistcoat, trousers, and matching trim on a cream-colored coat. The color scheme seems to deliberately echo Bertram’s, while his black mourning band, and his mother’s black mourning gown and veil, provide a visual reminder of the melancholy events directly preceding the play’s beginning (though one does wonder why Helena is not in mourning for her father as well). The limited costume changes make those few changes more notable and dramatic. The exposure of Parolles’ moral turpitude coincides with a more literal exposure as he is reduced to wandering barefoot with only his shirt and trousers; the sick king, swathed in blankets and ratty shawls in his wheelchair, signals his return to health by emerging in a tuxedo and leaning on a dignified cane. Helena’s neat but simple blouse and blue-striped skirt show her relative low status at the beginning of the play; her immaculate white pilgrim’s outfit and giant black rosary defy the shades of grey that might have accompanied her plan to take Diana’s place in Bertram’s seduction; her final dress, a beautiful combination of lace, grey silk, and impressive leg o’mutton sleeves, blends quality and taste with the dramatic sensibilities of an 80s soap opera star — a fitting combination for someone returning from the dead to announce a surprise pregnancy.
The strength of Melanie Stefan-Watts’ performance as Helena does not come from indulging the play’s melodramatic twists, however, but from balancing them out with genuine emotion. Her tears are as much of anger at her hopeless love as sadness over losing Bertram to the king’s court — and yet, Stefan-Watts works in glimpse of good humor and lightheartedness in Helena’s banter with Parolles and Lavatch, hinting at her personality when not oppressed by circumstance. Underneath all, Stefan-Watts gives Helena a steely determination that cures the king, sends her on a pilgrimage across Europe, and engineers an elaborate plot to claim Bertram as her rightful husband: Stefan-Watts shows it sustaining Helena past the point of exhaustion as the play comes to a close, when Helena appears desperate not for Bertram's love, but for simply a resolution of the play’s tangled events. Stefan-Watts’ emotional performance strikes a blow against sexist stereotypes by portraying Helena as entirely driven by her feelings and yet never irrational or out of control.
The rest of the cast picks up and capitalizes on this strength of feeling. Laural Merlington gives the Countess a notable temper, freely expressing her anger and grief at the increasingly terrible circumstances without losing sympathy by taking it out on others. The interactions between Stefan-Watts and Merlington, and also with other cast members like John Lopes as the King, suggests a natural understanding between these similarly high-strung characters that strengthens their sympathy with one another. This also underscores their rejection of Parolles (Damon Bonetti, who is funny enough to be sympathetic to the audience without undercutting Parolles’ pernicious influence): his disingenuous emotional performance and skewed values confuse and repel them.
Bertram's actions and reactions elicit similar disapproval from the characters, but thanks to Akeem Davis’ dynamic performance, not from the audience. Davis expertly assembles a character arc for this rather notorious part that shows Bertram, initially motivated by a self-centeredness that is thoughtless rather than malicious, finally regretting the consequences of his actions — though not quite fast enough to avoid hurting more people. Nevertheless, Davis’ charm and sincerity give a hopeful cast to Bertram’s final passionate kiss with Helena even as he makes it clear that Bertram's redemption has barely begun.
By focusing on the emotional consequences of the play’s flawed characters and moral ambiguities, Hodge’s direction refuses to shy away from the unsavory elements that earn All’s Well its designation as a problem play. He supplements the seriousness with a stately pace and Mari Ma’s somber accompaniment on the cello, but still allows for moments of comic relief, like Parolles’ capture by the disguised, ominous gibberish-spouting Dumaine (a gleeful Joel Guerrero). Hodge also makes use of textual editing to enrich the play’s character interactions: Lavatch (Brian McCann) brings the news of Helena’s apparent death and reveals his genuine regard for her under his clownish exterior.
The result is a thoughtful and engaging production that is rewarding to watch — all is well, indeed. By balancing the negative consequences within the play with the positive aspects of the characters, the cast and crew of the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective suggest that, if everyone gets their act together, things can end well also.