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OK, I’ll grant you it’s a tough play: Upstart girl falls for nobleman, who’d be glad to do the nasty with her but doesn’t much like the more permanent arrangement she eventually engineers.
Or put another way: Upstart girl saves king’s life, claims horny nobleman as prize; nobleman is annoyed. Conflict, along with many an unlikely plot twist, ensues.
So the problem with All’s Well That Ends Well, in a nutshell, is that the central twosome: a) has no reason to be together; b) doesn’t particularly want to be together; and c) doesn’t make much sense together. Naturally Shakespeare spends the better part of two hours working to get them together. And the audience? Well, usually it does its best to care, because it’s paid somewhere north of lunch money to be there.
Director Joe Banno comes at this play’s complications with a capital-C concept, as is often his way, and it’s not the worst one: Boy (Bertram, played by the lean and hungry-looking Parker Dixon) and girl (the coltish Helena of Mundy Spears) have an obsessive backstairs thing going, as evidenced by the sassy little dumb-show that kicks off the proceedings before anyone speaks a word of dialogue:
Helena, clad only in her scanties, greets a newly returned Bertram by slithering across the wide expanse of the breakfast table at his widowed mother’s estate, ending up more or less in his lap—while the assembled nobles look on, bemused. Decidedly non-Elizabethan exchanges, meanwhile, play in mischievous voice-overs designed to sound like language-lesson tapes—“You’re hot,” followed by its French equivalent, say—suggesting the characters’ internal monologues with a directness and efficiency that mere acting can’t hope to match.
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Or, you know, maybe it could. And that may be my problem with this All’s Well, which seems rather fonder of its devices than of its characters. Sure, they’re difficult people, but at some level don’t you need to like them if you’re going to try to make a case for them?
Not in Banno’s version. Helena, a physician’s daughter who finds a miracle cure in her late father’s notes and manages to convince a skeptical establishment to let her dose the king with it, gets reduced in Banno’s version to a sort of walking pathology—she’s a stalker rather than a woman determined to break through to a man whose vanity has muddled what most productions suggest is his genuine feelings for her. Bertram, whose status-consciousness and ambition help poison his relationship with a woman who has, after all, grown up among his family, comes off as little more than a sex addict with an attitude problem.
And so the actors playing them seem straitjacketed, constrained within a concept that was probably meant to help point up the play’s complexities and contradictions; the gimmicks, from the stark black-and-white design scheme to those increasingly acid bilingual interjections from overhead, start to feel weary rather than witty.
And once the action moves to Italy and the second act’s elaborate puzzle-plots—Bertram and his soldier friends plan a trap for a cowardly braggart, while a disguised Helena schemes to trick her husband, who’s publicly sworn that he won’t touch her until she bears a son he’s fathered and gets her hands on a ring he never takes off his finger—the evening becomes a sort of reality-TV-style endurance exercise: You can see the end coming, and you’ve long since decided which players you side with, and you’re just ho-humming while the writers and the producers shoo everyone over the obligatory hurdles.
There are small blessings. Cam Magee, warm and ingratiating as Bertram’s world-weary widowed mother; Ian Armstrong, blustering handsomely and with a surprising emotional transparency as the big-mouth Parolles; Lindsay Haynes as
the good-girl Italian who helps Helena engineer the business with the pregnancy and the ring; they’re all grace notes, and gratifying ones.
But grace notes need a melody to ornament, and this All’s Well seems unconcerned with developing one; it’s more concerned with the play’s dissonances and its darknesses, and in noodling on those, it tips over eventually into the realm of noise.