Friday, Jun 23, 2017

All’s Well That Ends Well (2009)

Photo by Jenny Graham

Photo by Jenny Graham

My default position towards All’s Well That Ends Well is “Eeeugh.” The play isn’t written for modern sensibilities, true, but I can’t help the disgust I feel towards the treatment of Helena and, worse, her willingness to shoulder the appalling burden that Bertram places upon her. When Diana is describing Bertram’s wooing (to Helena!) I just want to slug him.

The fact that I was crying at the Epilogue is thus a testament to the miracle I saw in the New Theatre today.

The show gets off to a good start before an actor ever takes the stage thanks to a truly innovative space courtesy of Scenic Designer Christopher Acebo. Mr. Acebo is a big wheel at OSF, and while I don’t always love his work when I do I really, really do, and this is one of those times. The set is dominated by a tree that puts me in mind of the Elizabethan. You know how they’ll often incorporate the supporting posts of the balcony by climbing on them or making them into torch sconces and such? This tree gets a serious workout and even contributes to the emotional impact of the Epilogue. That’s a hell of a tree, Christopher, good job. [Please note: I am sometimes a sarcastic bastard. This is not one of those times.] The hardwood “floor” curves skyward as it trends upstage (you can see it in the back of the photo above) and then picks up its arc near the ceiling, a whimsical touch that helps make clear that this set is not to be taken literally.

The production is set in an unspecified period in the early-mid 20th Century; a home movie projector figures into the stagecraft, along with a phonograph. If you’re unfamiliar with the play, here it is in a super-condense nut: Helena has always loved Bertram, and through shinanegans is granted the husband of her choosing by the King. Bertram dutifully marries her, but chafes at it and sort-of sneaks off to Italy to participate in an on-going war. He tells Helena that he’ll only really be married to her if she gets pregnant by him (he has not bedded her) and gets an ancestral ring off of his finger that he’s never likely to give. Right; he’s a jerk. Nevertheless, Helena sets out on a pilgrimage that turns into an effort to win his heart. And you wonder why scholars call this one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”? Through what can only be called a Shakespearean contrivance she manages to end up in bed with her husband, who was expecting someone else to be in the room instead and, thanks to a promise not to speak during the rendezvous (or use his hands, one must presume) does not realize the switch. (The ring came off his finger in the lead-up to this.) Faking her death, Helena thus baits Bertram back to France, and the Scooby gang unwind their plot, netting the husband. The final point of irritation for some, myself included, is the true and loyal love he professes at the end, and honestly, you just have to nod and say “okie-doke” because there’s no getting around it.

Given my fairly obvious disdain for several key points, why am I enchanted with this production? Because everyone involved is so damn good that they just don’t give you a choice. Let’s start with Kjerstine Rose Anderson as Helena, whose career arc at OSF has been on a pretty steep ascent over the last couple years. She’s gone from Ensemble in 2007 to one of the lovers in Midsummer in 2008, to two major roles this year (she’s also in the sublime The Servant of Two Masters). Her performance here proves that the artistic staff know what they’re doing when casting time comes around; she is warm, vibrant, and substantial in a role that has to be a challenge to get one’s head around. She manages to pull off the base-born naivete that the character claims to have when first in the presence of the King, and yet reveals her native backbone in that very same scene. Opposite her, Danforth Comins plays a conflicted Bertram with enough heart that you’re prepared to accept that his objection to the marriage is more in the arrangement of it than in the match, despite some of the venom he spews. It’s still touch and go, but the role is flat out virulent without an effort like his.

So, two up-amd-coming ingenues at the center of the play… let’s see, how might a director make sure that these young actors are well supported? Ye Gods, I’ve got it! Let’s cast the other roles with some of the finest actors in the Company! No, seriously. Armando Durán is here as, officially, “Clown and Ensemble” but he plays an on-stage Stage Manager not unlike the Cervantes character in this year’s Don Quixote; for all I know that’s where they got the idea. He hops lithely from role to role, and provides props and costumes at key moments. His frequent scene partner is G. Valmont Thomas as Lafew (and Ensemble). There is a sizeable portion of the 2nd half of the play given over to the faux capture of Parolles and his interrogation. Mr.s Duran and Thomas are simply brilliant in these comedic set pieces. Meanwhile the object of their torment, said Parolles, is played by John Tufts with fine flair and wit. Even this knavish character is embued with depth and a soul in Mr. Tufts capable hands. In Florence, meanwhile, Ms. Anderson is joined by Kate Mulligan and Emily Sophia Knapp as the widow and her chaste daughter Diana, who is the object of Bertram’s affection. Like I said before, it’s around this time that I want to strangle Bertram, but at least I get to watch Ms. Knapp deliver the lines. I suspect she was in the running for Helena in this production and I’d be surprised if she wasn’t holding the center of a production next year. It’s almost worth the price of a ticket just to hear her finish Act IV, scene ii:

For which live long to thank both heaven and me!
You may so in the end.
My mother told me just how he would woo,
As if she sat in ‘s heart; she says all men
Have the like oaths: he had sworn to marry me
When his wife’s dead; therefore I’ll lie with him
When I am buried. Since Frenchmen are so braid,
Marry that will, I live and die a maid:
Only in this disguise I think’t no sin
To cozen him that would unjustly win.

Oh, and that Epilogue? Without ruining for you, the reunited marrieds are treated to a family home movie of their future together, with a poignant (and somewhat mind-bending) twist at the end. Who knew you could do that? I do, now.