The little boy wore a formal black suit coat and pants with white T-shirt and red sneakers. His gap-toothed grin marked him to be a little man reveling in his self-assurance—or he had just played a prank like locking a bathroom stall from the inside. I walked past him, returning his smile (I discovered the locked stall afterward), and a few feet beyond him noticed a little girl, slightly older, watching the boy with a mix of envy and fascination.
This was opening night for Synetic Theater's A Midsummer Night's Dream in Arlington, Va., but it took me back to the evening before when I saw the American Shakespeare Center's All's Well That Ends Well at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, VA. Could these kids be the childhood versions of Bertram and Helena in that play? Clearly, Helena has been crushing on Bertram for so long—maybe infatuated with his coolness—that she's blind to his coolness toward her. In the ASC version, Bertram is ever conscious of being cool and, at best, patronizing toward her.
Of course, what comes before the play starts is as relevant as speculation. What comes after the play ends is of no consequence either: It ends when all's well. Fittingly, director Ralph Alan Cohen doesn't worry about past or future, either, but concentrates solely on what Shakespeare gives us between Act I, Scene 1, line one, and the King's epilogue. And what Shakespeare gives us is sharply written comic dialogue, cleverly constructed comic set pieces, and vividly drawn comic characters. All's Well That Ends Well has always been one of my favorite plays, but this is the first production I've seen that proves why that is so. In fact, ASC proves the play to be even funnier than I always thought it was.
So many people, myself included, write that Twelfth Night is the last of Shakespeare's great comedies. They dismiss the nontragedies that come after, from Measure to Measure to The Tempest, as "problem plays"—which begs the question, whose problem? All's Well has no problems. It is a comedy by any benchmark. Lost love found, check. Life reborn from (pre-play) death, check. Pompous braggart gulled with a trick, check. A jester serving as stand-up comedian, check. An old man with incisive wit, check. Funny characters, funny plot, funny lines, check, check, and check. Even the play's keystone moment when the just-cured King offers Helena any bachelor in his court to choose for marriage is comical. Cohen stages it so that the men are facing the audience, and it's clear in their shocked expressions that, nothing against Helena, remaining bachelors is their preference.
Maybe the bed trick with which Helena traps Bertram is a problem for modern audiences. Really, what she even sees in Bertram to the point of stalking him is a problem for me, but in Shakespeare, it is what it is, and it's up to the actors, in this case Tracie Thomason as Helena and Dylan Paul as Bertram, to make it believable. Which they do. Thomason and Paul, along with every member of this acting troupe, demonstrate that for All's Well Shakespeare wrote characters as wonderful as any in his whole canon.
One of those is Parolles, whom Benjamin Curns escalates to his proper place alongside such famous braggart buffoons as Bottom, Dogberry, and Pistol—if not higher. With Parolles, Shakespeare doesn't make his ridiculousness so obvious; his foolishness is contextual, and his repartee is as smart as Benedick's in Much Ado About Nothing. Curns, an actor of great intelligence who sounds the depths of the characters he plays, doesn't just resort to mannerisms and slapstick; he sharpens each line on a whetstone of wit. His dialogue with Thomason's Helena on the virtues of virginity is an Oscar Wilde–style thrust and parry delivered Mamet-like. All of the attributes Curns brings to his Parolles reach a singular climax in his speech of redemption—after his fake capture and the revelation of his duplicity to Bertram and the other French lords—which he delivers with his head and hands in the stocks and leaning over sideways as he tries to pick up his trusty scarf from the floor. You gotta love what he says and laugh at how he looks saying it. The brilliant physical humor continues as he tries to exit through the stage door while still in the stocks.
Of the three purely comic roles in this play, Parolles is the most obvious and accessible. However, Lavatch, the Countess's clown, is the most obtuse fool Shakespeare wrote. Gregory Jon Phelps, though, delivers his lines with such precision that the audience in the show I attended, comprising mostly high school students attending the ASC Theatre Camp, laughed at every joke. So did I, and as often as I've read (five times) and seen (four times) this play before, I had never understood half of what Lavatch was talking about. Some trimming is involved, but mostly it's the expertise of Phelps in mastering Shakespeare's language and getting inside the character.
The comedy of Lafew could be easily overlooked if not for an actor like René Thornton Jr. playing him. The elderly courtier seems at first blush to be little more than a device to get both Bertram and Helena to the court, but Shakespeare uses Lafew's shrewdness to give the audience a true glimpse into Parolles. These scenes establish Lafew's dry wit, and Thornton extends this attribute through the entirety of his portrayal, using the gravity of the character as a platform from which to let loose his zingers. On Parolles: "Believe this of me," he tells Bertram, "there can be no kernel in this light nut." On Bertram, whom Lafew had hoped to marry to his daughter before all the lies unfold: "I will buy me a son-in-law in a fair, and toll for this. I'll none of him." On the climactic reappearance of Helena: "Mine eyes smell onions. I shall weep anon." Even his incredulous tone in asking Bertram, "Pray you, sir, who's his tailor?" when Parolles comes on stage gets a laugh.
It's worth a quick digression to answer that question. Costume designer Victoria Depew dresses these characters as early 1920s British gentry: formal vests and suit coats for the men when they are not wearing British Army browns; the women in pretty straight-line dresses and brimmed hats. Parolles wears a grey pinstripe suit with embroidered cape and that orange scarf, and Lavatch in knee britches, black checkered vest, bow tie, diamond-patterned stockings, and dog cap.
The Countess wears an Edwardian-era mourning dress, and Allison Glenzer inhabits the role with scene-stealing grace and dignity. It's natural to laud the flamboyant fervor of Curns's Parolles, the cynical antics of Phelps's Lavatch, the surprising drollery of Thornton's Lafew—superb acting all—but truly great acting also is accomplished in the stillness and reserve with which Glenzer plays the Countess. The still-grieving widow is determined to pursue joy, if not in her life then in the lives of those she loves: her son Bertram and the just-like-a-daughter Helena. Glenzer portrays this simply by the way she sits and observes and in the slight but vocal modulations when she converses with Helena. In her interactions with Lavatch, she holds an expression of strained bemusement: the fool irritates her, yet he would make her laugh if she would allow it, and underneath this melded emotion lies the fact that Lavatch is a living remembrance of her husband who, she says, "made himself much sport out of him."
All of the actors have the trust and skills to build their portrayals from Shakespeare's clearly guiding hand, even the First Lord and Second Lord, given wholly honorable bearings in the performances of, respectively, Chris Johnston and Tim Sailer, and the First Soldier (Josh Innerst, who turns in a memorable role as the interpreter for the gibberish-speaking "enemy" soldiers who supposedly capture Parolles). John Harrell gives a dignified but funny reading of the King. When he's sick, he takes so painfully long to sit down in a cushioned chair that we get a pretty good idea of the fistula that ails him so. After Helena cures him, Harrell's king is lithe as well as lively, demonstrating that this young woman has not only cured him physically but uplifted him spiritually, too.
Helena is one of Shakespeare's great female roles, delivering clever repartee and taut introspection in some wonderfully constructed verse. Thomason masters the role well. We easily see why both the Countess and King come to regard her as a daughter. The role may be confounding for critics because Helena seems as pure and undaunted as a Disney princess (and is that such a bad thing? Don't you wish your daughter and best friend were of that temperament?), and because we have no idea whatsoever what she sees in Bertram (my commentary has always been that Bertram has to be way good looking—and Paul is).
Bertram is the play's glaring enigma, a role with too many holes for an actor to adequately fill. What are his initial feelings toward Helena? Why does he so virulently refuse to marry her—even though she now comes with great wealth and title—at the dangerous displeasure of the King? How does he find it in his better senses to be so publicly disdainful of her? How does he find it in his sense of honor to treat Diana so dishonorably? And what, in the end, moves him to willingly, eagerly even, embrace Helena?
Paul offers answers to some of these questions in the play's very first scene. His Bertram is still a teen-age boy, graduating to take his place in the court, his first venture away from home. He is painfully naive: Examples crop up throughout the play, as he fails to understand jokes as well as courtly protocols. In the opening scene he tries to involve himself in the conversation between Lafew and his mother by asking what the king languishes of. When Lafew replies that it is a fistula, Bertram in his most intelligent tone replies, "I heard not of it before." Thornton speaks the following line, "I would it were not notorious," with an edge that points to Bertram's ignorance, and the young man reacts as such.
Bertram also, notably, grows clearly agitated when his mother and Lafew make much over Helena. No definitive backstory here, but Paul shows Bertram to be the one who harbors envy for Helena. Thereafter, Paul lets the text tell Bertram's tale. By the testimony of Lafew and the Dumaine brothers, it is Parolles who leads the naive Bertram astray, and his own lack of experience in society accounts for some of the nasty things he says about women ("Here comes my clog," spoken as Helena enters, earns a vocal rebuke from the audience). He tries to lie his way through the final scene, hitting obstacles at every twist and turn, and along the way one thing becomes perfectly clear: Not only the King but his own mother, too, have greater affection for the lost Helena than for him. So, when Helena magically appears, he probably understands that she is the most resourceful person he will ever meet, but more importantly he sees her for what she is at that particular moment, the one person who can get him off the hook.
And so, as Helena has promised, all's well that ends well—for her, certainly, and for all those who adore her. Is Bertram really among them? Well, she did beat him at his game, she is lovely, she's carrying his child, and, by his own reckoning, the sex was good, though he only now realizes it was her. Whether his stated affection is sincere or lasting is immaterial. The play ends here. If you don't look before or beyond, All's Well That Ends Well is a wholly satisfying comedy as it is, made greater still in the hands of actors with such skill.
This review also appears on Shakespeareances.com.