Well, it starts well, you have to give it that. Laird Williamson stages the opening moments of Shakespeare Theater’s All’s Well That Ends Well in what looks like a giant playpen littered with animated statuary and wooden building blocks the size of hassocks. As the houselights dim, two frolicking youngsters freeze near the lip of the stage in a sweet pose—boy facing girl, her fingers touching his shoulder—and are replaced by identically costumed adults. The couple’s proximity as children was innocent, now it’s charged. They kiss. The lad impulsively touches the girl’s breast. She breaks away in tears.

Those who know that the play’s opening dialogue attributes the heroine’s sobs to grief for a long-dead father may feel pulses quickening at this directorial invention. Williamson is the same guy who not long ago staged Love’s Labors Lost as a romp through an Edwardian library. That project ended well. Could he now have stumbled on a way to make All’s Well’s misbegotten love story plausible? The animated statuary argues for a central concept, the building blocks for childlike simplicity, the mimed prologue for an interpretation filled with romantic longing Shakespeare neglected to write.

Alas, they’re all just decorative, rather like the draped fabric in which designer Andrew V. Yelusich seems determined to drown both the performers and the stage. Seldom in the years since Ziegfeld held sway has so much material swept so fetchingly across beige carpeting. Sheer white curtains descend from the heavens to form snowbanks, acres of linen drift on from the wings to cover set changes, and enough cotton and silk trails from arms, waists, and shoulders to leave the cast looking like extras at a nativity pageant.

Under the circumstances, it hardly seems surprising when plot points get similarly shrouded. The Bard was making fairly broad class distinctions in this fable-inspired story, but the production design mutes them by making everyone look the same. By intermission, unless you already know where the play is headed, the behavior of the two leading characters is all but inexplicable.

A melancholy comedy with characters so dishonest they actively repel audience sympathy, All’s Well has never been an easy play for directors. It amounts to two shows in one—a romance in which a lowly doctor’s daughter named Helena (Kelly McGillis) loves an aristocratic jerk named Bertram (Paul Michael Valley), blended with a comic tragedy in which a military buffoon named Parolles is found out by his compatriots. The braggart’s unmasking generally works better than the romance (during the 18th century, Parolles was actually regarded as the play’s star), but it’s the love story that’s central.

The two plots get intertwined when France’s ailing monarch wonders how to repay Helena for nursing him to health and she makes the mistake of having him order Bertram to marry her. Bertram obeys, but thinks a doctor’s daughter is beneath him socially, so rather than suffer the indignity of it all, he heads off to war with Parolles immediately after the wedding, leaving behind a note that says he’ll not share Helena’s bed until she meets two impossible conditions: She must be wearing a ring from which he’s never parted, and she must prove she’s carrying his child. This being a comedy, those tasks naturally prove child’s play for our sweetly virginal heroine. She fakes a religious pilgrimage so she can follow her husband, then circulates a story that she’s been killed so he’ll go home and she can trap him at court. It’s the trickery that provides the evening’s fun.

Or at any rate, it does in most productions. In this one, however, Helena is played as a saintly innocent who somehow doesn’t realize she’s fulfilling her husband’s requirements until the evening’s last scene. Her pilgrimage is played straight and her grief is depicted as all-consuming, which means she’s buffeted by events, rather than being the controller of them. The approach suggests that when Shaw cited Helena as a harbinger of his own wittily aggressive heroines, he was thinking only of St. Joan.

It also subverts at least half of the evening’s humor, turning an admittedly unsavory romantic comedy into a melodrama that often doesn’t make much sense. If Helena doesn’t know what she’s doing, for instance, why does she go to the trouble of exchanging rings, particularly when hers is precious to her? And what are audiences to make of this supposedly guileless creature’s attempt to consummate her marriage? More to the point, how can anyone root for her when she’s just a bystander in her own story?

Williamson doesn’t offer many answers, though he’s managed to make his concept persuasive enough that patrons unfamiliar with the play will likely conclude that it’s just not very funny. Except for the Parolles sections, it plays as soap opera.

It doesn’t help that the whole production has been cast with an eye to making McGillis’ virgin appear plausibly ingénueish. The thirtysomething actress is as deft with Helena’s speeches and as convincingly despairing when abandoned as anyone might wish, but “winsome” is no longer among the adjectives that spring to mind when she strides on stage. Similarly, while a teenager might be forgiven for being so easily led by Philip Goodwin’s transparent Parolles, Valley’s mature, substantial playing of Bertram makes the lad’s transgressions against his innocent wife seem actively malicious.

Supporting players fare better. Ted van Griethuysen’s ailing king is so scarily fragile at the play’s outset that his buoyance upon recovering serves to bring the whole court alive. Nine years ago, in a production staged by Michael Kahn, van Griethuysen played the monarch as a dapper, self-possessed autocrat. This time, his king is truly kingly, serene and majestic even when kicking up his heels in a little jig. In fact, all the cast’s senior members seem wonderfully relaxed. The erudite royals played by Emery Battis and DeAnn Mears are witty voices of reason in moments of madness, while Floyd King is precisely the opposite as a clownish aging fool.

As the much younger interrogator who undoes Parolles, Wallace Acton creates a full-bodied character out of double takes and sideways glances. Gráinne Cassidy has all of three lines as a dyspeptic proto-feminist and nonetheless makes an impression. Rob Nagle and Stevie Ray Dallimore bristle amusingly as lords whose plot to expose Parolles ends up making laughingstocks of them as well. In fact, except for a couple of indifferently acted factotums, the entire company is up to snuff, even when it’s being sabotaged by costuming that actively undercuts character traits. (To cite just the most obvious example, if soldiers are all attired in billowing tunics at court and glittery chain mail on the battlefield, then what’s an audience to make of their mockery of the allegedly flamboyant Parolles, whose layered leathers make him look more like an armadillo than a fop?)

It’s tempting to see all this folderol merely as a reversal of recent Shakespeare Theater tendencies—a pendulum swing away from the starkness of the company’s Macbeth and Henry V. Certainly, it’s refreshing to see something other than naked scaffolding providing an environment for the Bard’s characters. On the other hand, exposure to an entire evening of animated statues that serve no dramatic purpose and braces of curtains that never open the same way twice quickly makes starkness seem preferable. At about the point when two of those statues started waving the curtains in pretty little swirls as they entered, I was ready for the pendulum to swing back.CP

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