All’s Well that Ends Well
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Joe Banno
Produced by Washington Shakespeare Company
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
All’s Well that Ends Well is famously known as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” the kind that most companies would shy away from tackling unless they have a name like the Washington Shakespeare Company. Talented director Joe Banno’s clever touches and a game lead performance by Mundy Spears provide an interesting and at times diverting piece of entertainment, but WSC has not solved all of the play’s problems and at times the production flags.
The central difficulty is that the audience cannot understand why the lovely young Helen (Mundy Spears) falls hopelessly in love with the aristocratic and priggish Bertram (Parker Dixon). What’s worse is that she knows he is a cad, remarking early on that the womanizing Bertram is one of those strange men “who makes such sweet use of what they hate.
The fact that we do care so much about Helen’s fate is a tribute to Spears’ fine performance. She makes an endearing heroine whether swooning in the flush of passion or working artfully to win her prize. She also provides some deft comic moments, such as her efforts to pose provocatively to attract Bertram’s fancy.
When Helen is able to cure the King of France from a dreadful and seemingly terminal ailment using skills learned from her doctor/father, the King grants Helen the right to choose her husband. Helen chooses Bertram, who complies with the King’s command to marry so reluctantly that he demonstrates, as the monarch puts it, that he is a “proud scornful boy, unworthy [of] this good gift.” Bertram’s petulant response is to leaves Helen wedded but not bedded by fleeing matrimonial life to undertake military service in Italy.
Another challenge with the play is that the story has elements of comedy, romance, and drama, and a tone that shifts all over the lot from wistful to cynical. Banno makes a clever creative choice to set the story in 1930s France, a time when the class system was breaking down and the social atmosphere accommodated broad possibilities. This setting, aided by an interesting multilevel black and white set by Hannah J. Cromwell, mostly monochromatic period costumes from Melanie A. Clark, and Christopher Baine’s sound design featuring cabaret music, creates the promise of a world where the story just might work.
At times the romance does work despite a lack of support in the text. Similarly, there are some funny bits, frequently involving Ian Armstrong as a clownish friend of Bertram and Nathan Weinberger as a servant who is a jester at heart. One comic device that provides repeated laughs involves freezing the action so that the thoughts of the characters are announced both in English and in a foreign tongue reminiscent of language education tapes.
The story proceeds apace as Helen follows Bertram to Italy to set in motion a plot that will lead to the requisite yet unbelievable happy ending. Yet despite amusing moments, the production never really soars. The possibilities suggested by a few fantasy sequences and comic moments are not fully realized and the atmosphere of the story stays moribund for long stretches.
Even second-echelon Shakespeare has a certain appeal and this production is an interesting and above average interpretation of the work. Still, while there are some memorable moments and clever touches in the show, it rarely engages you fully enough to drive that question “what does she see in him?” out of your mind.
Running Time: 2:20 (with one intermission).
When: Until Dec. 7, 2008. Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 PM.
Where: Clark Street Playhouse, 601 South Clark St., Arlington (Crystal City), Virginia.
Tickets: Thursdays $25, Fridays and Sundays $30, Saturday evenings $35, Saturday matinees PWYC. Call 1-800-494-TIXS (8497) or visit the website