Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2008
The morning after I saw Tina Packer’s production of All’s Well That Ends Well, I was sorting through my press kit and complaining to my younger son. The show was too long, my rear end fell asleep, the script is lousy, Packer had inserted all this music, blah, blah, blah.
“Yesterday you said it was a treat,” he remarked. “You said no one ever does this show and you were looking forward to it and that it was a real treat to see it staged.”
Well that stopped me dead in my tracks.
Welcome to the world of the Shakespeare Geek.
There is a reason that Shakespeare’s seldom-staged works are seldom staged. Many of them aren’t that good. But as a Shakespeare Geek the thrill of adding a notch to the belt is greater than the knowledge that the script is lousy to start with – that kicks in about two and a half hours into the performance when your butt falls asleep and you’re ready for a nap. Bottom Line: I’ve seen All’s Well That Ends Well on stage. I’ve also seen Cymbeline, Love’s Labours Lost, King John, and Henry VI, Part I. Are you impressed yet?
Not surprisingly, Tina Packer is also a Shakespeare Geek. She wanted to stage All’s Well... for the same reason I wanted to see it – because no one else had. There have literally been entire centuries during which this play existed only on the page, never on the stage.
In her program notes Packer writes: “It is a truth universally acknowledged by theatre practitioners and academics alike that All’s Well That Ends Well is a flawed play...not the first half, but the second...Shakespeare hasn’t written it with subtlety and depth – it feels like he took time writing the first half but threw the second half together in a day.”
Here Packer draws the center point mid-way through the third act, as the heroine, Helena (Kristin Villanueva), heads off on a religious pilgrimage after being rejected by her new husband, Bertram (Jason Asprey). She tells everyone she’s going to from her native Rossillion, in southern France, to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, but she actually goes the other way, to Italy. To Florence to be exact, where Bertram has fled from her to fight in the Tuscan Wars.
Before this we have seen Helena and Bertram growing up as childhood playmates. She is orphaned and her father, an renowned physician, left her in the care of Bertram’s parents, the Count and Countess of Rossillion. As the play opens the Count has died, and the Countess (Elizabeth Ingram), still in mourning, is bidding Bertram farewell as he goes to Paris to serve in the court of the King of France (Timothy Douglas). Accompanying him is his sycophant, Parolles (Kevin O’Donnell) and Parolles’ own Particular Private Drum (Douglas Seldin).
No sooner has he left than Helena confesses her overpowering love for Bertram:
“I am undone; there is no living, none,
If Bertram be away; ‘twere all one
That I should love a bright particular star
And think to wed it, he is so above me.”
In those days, medicine was considered a trade, not an art, and a physician, no matter how skilled, was decidedly middle class.
The King is young, but very ill. Helena, longing for Bertram’s company, picks up a sheaf of remedies her father left her, and goes to court to see if she can cure the King. She succeeds and as a reward he tells her she may marry the nobleman of her choice.
But when Helena makes her choice Bertram is appalled. He refuses to marry her. “I cannot love her, nor will I strive to do’t,” he tells the King, who tells him he has no choice in the matter. They are wed that evening, and Bertram immediately leaves for the war, refusing to consummate their marriage, and stating that the only way he will acknowledge her as his wife is if she can get the ancestral ring from his hand and conceive his child.
In my college days Shakespeare’s plays that were neither comedy, tragedy, nor history were called his “Romances.” In current parlance, they’re called “Problem Plays.” Academics will give you some mumbo-jumbo about that meaning that each plot contains a central problem. This is a load of hooey. They are called problem plays because they are just big ol’ problems! They are problematic to stage, problematic to teach, and, for modern audiences, often problematic to understand or accept for their gender politics.
Well you can see the problem here, at the halfway point, even in the half Packer considers fairly well written. Bertram is a completely horrid and unsympathetic character, and while Helena is kind, beautiful, and intelligent, her appeal is lost as soon as she attaches herself to him. The phrase "All’s well that ends well” which Helena speaks in Act IV, scene iv, means to her that it doesn’t matter what she has to do to get that ring and conceive that child, she’s gonna do it. The end justifies the means. If the end means a life time with Bertram and his spawn I am not so sure this play does end well.
When Helena finds Bertram in Florence he is all over a cute little blonde virgin named Diana (Brittany Morgan) and with her assistance, and that of her widowed mother (Ginya Ness) and various neighborhood women (Morganne Davis and Grace Trull), Helena hatches a plot that gets her the ring, the baby, and Bertram.
Meanwhile Parolles, who for many centuries was considered the comic center of this play, has been getting himself in trouble with the other officers in the French forces with his outrageous bragging, preening, and cowardice. His comeuppance in Act IV is indeed one of the more entertaining parts of this production.
There is also a stock Elizabethan clown role in All’s Well..., that of Lavache (Nigel Gore) who attends Countess Rossillion. In seeking a concept for this production, Packer struck on the fact that Rossillion is located in the region of southern France where the troubadour movement started. Shakespeare put one song into his script, and there is evidence that in the Elizabethan theatre a small band of musicians played throughout most productions, providing an underscore such as we are used to hearing in films today. Packer decided to add more songs, creating lyrics from pieces of the text of the play, a sonnet, and actual troubadour songs, set to music by Shakespeare & Company’s Resident Musical Director, Bill Barclay.
Shakespeare has been musicalized countless times over the centuries, in fact it was the Tony award winning musical version of Two Gentlemen of Verona, with a score by Hair composer Galt MacDermott, that lured me in to a life in the theatre, so I am hardly one to complain about the concept of mixing rock music and Shakespeare. Its just that here it doesn’t work.
It might have worked if Packer and Barclay had really made All’s Well... into a musical, but they didn’t. In the musical theatre genre that exists in 21st century America, the music is used to advance the plot and illuminate the characters and situations, not to interrupt them. Here we have action and then we have song, and then we have action, and then we have song. The company helpfully provides sheets of lyrics, but not their sources, except where they are Shakespearean. You can understand some of the lyrics as they are sung, but you can’t grasp the overall message of each song. Looking at the lyrics later, I realized that Packer had chosen fascinating texts that did often comment poignantly on plot and character, but that is no good if you don’t understand them in performance.
Gore sings lead on almost all of the songs, backed up by various members of the cast on instruments ranging from the guitar and mandolin to the ocarina and tin whistle. Collectively they are introduced as The Gall Stones (or, since Lavache resides in France, are they The Gaul Stones??), The Stones for short, and Gore’s performance is a fairly blatant imitation of Keith Richards, a member of that other group known colloquially as The Stones.
Gore isn’t really a singer. He is a grand performer and he sings with conviction and chutzpah, mostly on key, which is half the battle. And he is a handsome man. In those leather trousers, carefully sanded to enhance his physique, he cuts a dashing rock-star-like figure. I could be persuaded to fling my panties in his direction. But I came to see Shakespeare, not a rock concert.
Also, All’s Well... is a play about women, and yet the women really don’t sing. Villanueva gets a few moments at the microphone, but considering that it is mostly her character’s story that is being sung, I seems only proper that she would get to sing it – except that she doesn’t have any leather trousers and seems not to be very comfortable expressing herself in song.
One place the music does work is the number that sends the loathsome Bertram off to war. It has a strong beat and feels like a tribal war dance, a song designed to whip men up into the testosterone-based frenzy that allows them to believe that war is not only necessary, but fun.
There are many excellent performances here. Villanueva is delightful as Helena, and a darned good crier (ie she can produce believable tears right on cue.) Asprey underplays Bertram, which is the best possible course of action with this unappealing character. Ingram is all motherly kindness as the Countess, and Douglas brings gravitas and quiet power to the role of the King. It is lovely to watch Douglas, who is a tall black man, and Villanueva, a petite Asian woman, perform Susan Dibble’s spirited choreography in their dance to celebrate the King’s return to health.
O’Donnell steals every scene he is in with his outrageous performance as Parolles, aided and abetted by the equally over-the-top costume Jacqueline Firkins has designed for him. With a waist length wig of golden ringlets and more red and yellow scarves and bows than you can imagine, O’Donnell reminded me of a sparkly My Little Pony tricked out by an over-enthusiastic six-year-old girl. He literally sheds accessories as he moves, requiring Seldin to pick up the stage after each exit.
After his comeuppance, O’Donnell is literally stripped of all his finery – wig, false moustaschios, gaudy gear – and reduced to beggar’s rags, revealing a slight and attractive, but no less conniving, young man underneath.
Seldin his just plain funny as Parolles unnamed attendant and drummer. He strikes some hilarious poses with strained facial expressions to match, that are hilarious.
Morgan makes the most of her smallish role as the virgin Diana, and I liked her performance very much. Ness scores both as Diana’s mother, the Widow Capilet, and as Reynalda, attendant on the Countess, with many delightfully funny character-driven bits. Trull is obviously having a blast as Violenta, the very pregnant though unmarried neighbor of the Capilets.
Of all the musicians, Alexander Sovronsky stands out for his versatility, playing guitar, mandolin, violin, tin whistle, ocarina, and bamboo flute with equal ease. Mike Allen Morena has some nice solos on the harmonica.
A friend asked me what I thought of All’s Well... and I replied, “Well, if you like obscure, second-rate Shakespeare interrupted by bad rocks songs, then it’s the show for you.” As soon as I said it I was horrified. Is that what I really thought? No, its not what Gail M. Burns thought – I’ve just explained my thoughts ad nauseum for the past dozen or so paragraphs – but it is what most people will think.
Packer has stated her interest in presenting the entire Shakespearean canon before she leaves this mortal coil – she says she has about half a dozen plays to go – and for all the faults in this script and production, I, for one, am right behind her. I can hardly wait for my butt to fall asleep at productions of Pericles, Timon of Athens, Titus Andronicus, and how about the “Henry VIII” and the rest of those Henry VIs? I wouldn’t mind seeing Cymbeline again either, it has been about 35 years...
The Shakespeare and Company production of All's Well That Ends Well runs in repertory through August 31 in the Founders' Theatre, 70 Kemble Street in Lenox. The show runs three hours with one intermission and is suitable for kids old enough to sit through that much Shakespeare!
Founders’ is air-conditioned and wheelchair accessible. Performances in the evenings run at 8:00 p.m. and in the afternoons at 3:00 p.m. Tickets range from $15 to $60. For a complete listing of productions and schedules, to inquire about student, senior, Berkshire resident and Rush Tix, or to receive a brochure, please visit the website at www.shakespeare.org or call the Box Office at (413) 637-3353. For group visits, contact Group Sales Manager Victoria Vining at (413) 637-1199 ext. 132.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008