It’s awfully nice of Shakespeare to let us know how the play ends before we go into the theatre. Still, I might have traded it back for a chance to feel some sense of surprise. When plays have titles that are this ripe with prognosis, it’s awfully tempting to re-title them, so Michael Kahn’s season-opener certainly earns a nickname. It might more accurately be called All’s Okay That Ends Fine, I Guess, partly due to production but also, honestly, because our greatest English playwright wrote a few plays that weren’t so great.
It’s not that All’s Well That Ends Well shouldn’t ever be produced. On the contrary; the play is suitably stuffed, as we’d expect, with humor, wit, and poetry, and boasts one great leading role in Helena (here played by Miriam Silverman), the daughter of a physician who’s passed down to her the secret remedy for curing the dying King of France (Ted van Griethuysen). If the cure doesn’t work, Helena will be killed, but success means a royally ordained marriage to any young man she desires.
It works, of course, and Helena decides to act on her long-time secret love for Count Bertram (Tony Roach). Problem is, he’s a young man with something to prove, so he immediately disowns her and runs off to fight in the Italian wars with his friends, vowing never to return. Getting him back means journeying abroad, going undercover, and enlisting the help of a beautiful Italian towngirl named Diana (Natalie Mitchell). Helena wins him over in the end, although it’s pure strategy, not romance, and relies on a few well-worn Shakespearian bits of trickery, that, really, no one would ever fall for except dumb old Bertram.
So there’s some fun to be had with this one. It has its featherweight charm, but doesn’t boast much of a timeless story or any innovative sense of form. It’s not a major Shakespeare play, but not really much of a hidden gem either, and it needs something inspired brought to it in order to provide some dramatic momentum.
Director Michael Kahn and his capable team hope to do this in part by giving the show a mid-20th century Continental feel, although Court Watson’s scenic design and Robert Perdziola’s costumes seem a little hazy on specifics. The military parallels could be interesting, perhaps, but throwing a world war into the mix is a pricey distraction if it neither challenges nor inspires the ensemble to foster some subtext.
As it is, the somewhat-period dress and glassy, steely set give us no tangible world to run toward or away from, which leaves the actors floating in space as much as the audience. For all the large-scale visual ambition that usually comes from designing for the Lansburgh, the world of All’s Well That Ends Well is strangely non-interactive – with rare exceptions, there’s nothing to touch, nowhere to sit, and nothing to do – and many scenes pass with barely more motion than in a museum exhibit on period costuming. Everyone’s behind glass, speaking astutely but with their passions on ice. Even four-time Academy Award nominee Marsha Mason, in a wistful but tame portrayal of Bertram’s mother the Countess of Rossillion, can’t find a means of enlivening things.
The cast does find a few moments to shine. Silverman is sympathetic and relateable, giving much more to her love story than she ever gets in return (“Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, which we ascribe to heaven” she firmly avows). Adam Green, as the clownish Lavatch, plays to type well and amuses much like he did in last season’s The Liar. And Paxton Whitehead, as the calmly droll lord Lafew, earns the most audience chuckles with his intuitive sense of rhythm and deadpan tone.
Still, if part of holding onto our theatrical history is a willingness to visit some so-so stories now and again, finding an invigorating new doorway in is doubly important. Much of Shakespeare Theatre’s production is technically precise and diligently scored, but it’s awfully hard to warm up to something with no fire burning inside. “Oft expectation fails.” says Helena halfway through the evening, “And most oft there where most it promises.” She’s looking for a connection that never takes hold. By Act Five, it’s easy to empathize.
All’s Well That Ends Well
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Kahn
Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
All’s Well That Ends Well plays thru Oct 24, 2010.
Click here for details, directions and tickets.
ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL
- Lisa Troshinsky . Washington Diplomat
Patrick Folliard . Washington Blade
- Kate Wingfield . MetroWeekly
- Susan Berlin . Talkin’ Broadway
Trey Graham . City Paper
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Julie LaPorte . Washington Life
- Don . WeLoveDC
David Hoffman . Fairfax Times
Michael Toscano . Theatermania
- Joan Fuchsman . Examiner.com