The so-called "problem plays" of Shakespeare are comedies with perilously dark souls, including The Winter's Tale, Measure for Measure, and All's Well That Ends Well, which is running at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater through June 11. The first two, of course, come to happy conclusions, in part because the conflicted men at the center of them--Leontes in The Winter's Tale and Angelo in Measure for Measure--are chastened and speak words of repentance or apology. The characters gain newfound wisdom as social and civil order--so central to all of Shakespeare's work--are restored.
But not so in All's Well, a play that offers precious little romance or poetry and in which the haughty young hero delivers no words of repentance or wisdom at the end. The story is a fractured romance in which Bertram, the young Count Rossillion, is forced by his king to marry the socially-inferior Helena. Bertram flees on the wedding night, but is tricked into consummating his union with Helena when she takes the place of another woman whom Betram intends to debauch. Callow, arrogant, and a poor judge of character, Bertram not only rejects Helena, but chooses the blowhard Parolles as his companion. Foreshadowing the play's ending, Bertram says nothing when Parolles's deceptions are revealed. For her part, Helena is beautiful and resourceful, yet chooses to pursue a man who does not love her and is not her equal in terms of strength of character. Bertram is handsome and physically brave, but that's where his merits end.
Most directors solve this problem play by giving it a lighthearted treatment. They observe Bertram as a young man sowing his wild oats and eager to test himself in battle, while giving Helena a serious but bright personality with charm to spare. Comedy is drawn from the clown, Lavatch, and the braggart Parolles.
But Barbara Gaines will have none of that. The founder and artistic director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST) has unveiled a somber vision of All's Well to complete CST's inaugural season in it's handsome, $24 million Navy Pier home. She begins with a starkly beautiful tableau of mourners backlit in the snow, and ends with a marriage dance--again with snow falling--that's not one bit more joyful.
The subdued tone is carried through in CST's typically tasteful and lavish physical production, which is set in the 1860's. Think of Queen Victoria and Mary Todd Lincoln in perpetual deep mourning. Except for the scarlet uniforms of soldiers and splashes of color in the scenes set in Italy, the lighting (by Robert Christen), spare scenery mainly of classical arches (by Michael S. Philippi), and costumes (by Michael Krass) explore mostly blacks, midnight blues, dark greens, and browns.
In Gaines's interpretation, Bertram (Timothy Gregory) really is a petulant and unpleasant stuffed shirt, while Helena (Lia D. Mortensen) is soulful but pallid, with few character traits beyond fortitude and determination, and no charm. The overriding, unanswered questions are: Why would she want such a cad--and how could a woman so earnest but dull ever interest him? Both Gregory and Mortensen must hold their natural allure in check.
Gaines grants Parolles his funny scenes with the deft Larry Yando--a past master of vain and foppish swaggerers--in the role. But she keeps Ron Keaton's Lavatch reined in. He delivers his bawdy jokes adroitly, but without brio, while his songs--composed by CST's house composer, Alaric Jans, with words from Shakespeare's sonnets--are quite melancholy in character.
Both the graceful staging and supporting company are true to CST's customary high standards. Choreographers Harrison McEldowney and Robin McFarquhar respectively add some appealing courtly and military flourishes; while Linda Kimbrough (Countess of Rossillion), James Harms (Lafew), Patrick Clear (King of France), Timothy Kane (soldier interpreter), Alyson Green (Diana), and Jacqueline Renee Jones (widow) are impeccable.
Ultimately, then, the question must be asked: Is Gaines's interpretation valid? Of course it is, and it's supported by Shakespeare's text. But I don't understand the point, beyond the fact that such a dark interpretation is possible. Gaines emphasizes themes of honor and personal (if sometimes false) pride, and the play's ambiguous ending. But without allowing Bertram and Helena considerably more personality, she leaves an audience wondering why they should care. And without allowing Bertram and Helena to gain wisdom from their experiences, she disallows the restoration of order and balance which are the essence of Shakespeare's work.