There may be no better example in dramatic literature of this potentially self-destructive type of woman than the otherwise intelligent and compassionate Helena in William Shakespeare's shadowy comedy All's Well That Ends Well, which Theatre for a New Audience is giving a handsome-production, directed by Darko Tresnjak.
If the play is rarely performed these days -- just as it was during Shakespeare's life -- it's because Helena's reasons for seeing the sun, moon, and stars in the cocky and self-impressed Bertram goes completely unexplained. The closest she comes to expressing grounds for her admiration is in a first soliloquy, where she admits dewily to allowing herself "every hour, to sit and draw his arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls." But just because she likes the looks of him, is that enough to make audiences give two figs for a lady who constantly devises means by which to trap the off-putting object of her daffy affection?
Helena's wiles here echo tactics that Shakespeare used in many of his other plays, such as the scenario in Measure for Measure by which a lady steals into a fellow's bed when he's expecting someone else, or The Winters' Tale ploy of a character returning to life who had been thought dead. These proceedings are interspersed with other activities, such as Helena's curing the king of a supposedly fatal fistula and demanding as reward the right to choose her husband from any man in the kingdom. While no one is surprised by her choice, at least four other comely soldiers -- all of them clearly better prospects than Bertram -- propose to her anyway. Meanwhile, the play's truly amusing subplot concerns Bertram's cowardly attendant, Parolles, who mistakenly thinks he's been kidnapped by enemies and spills the beans to them about company secrets.
Tresnjak's production is a classy one, in large part by virtue of David F. Gordon's dark set, which features a series of muted grey arches as well as a Florence skyline. Linda Cho's costumes are late Victorian/early Edwardian, and they're fine if sometimes unintentionally amusing. For example, Helena's traveling ensemble of long jacket, flat hat, and carpet bag --and later, a black umbrella -- resembles the Mary Shepard-Agnes Sims illustrations of Mary Poppins.
But this Helena, Kate Forbes, doesn't burst into Disney song. Instead, Forbes holds to the sincere, impassioned manner with which she strides steadfastly through the play. More importantly, she manages to infuse Helen's love for Bertram with a hint of self-doubt that goes some distance toward making the daft character more understandable.
Laurie Kennedy effectively brings out the sweetness and kindess of the Countess. Lucas Hall has both the hauteur and the curls for Bertram. George Morfogen, who is incapable of giving a static performance, is a king ready to dance a jig when returned to good health, while Adam Stein plays Parolles as a lovable scaredy-cat. Finally, the dramaturge for this production is Michael Feingold, and his judicious trimming of Shakespeare's text proves that even if it's not always true that all's well that ends well, it is true that all's improved that's edited well.