Kathleen Chalfant and Dana Green (foreground)in All's Well That Ends Well
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Kathleen Chalfant and Dana Green (foreground)
in All's Well That Ends Well
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
The most likely explanation for the failure of the Yale Repertory Theatre production of All's Well That Ends Well to thrill is that, three weeks into rehearsals, director James Bundy underwent emergency heart surgery and Mark Rucker was summoned from the South Coast Repertory to take over. (Fortunately, Bundy is on his way to a complete recovery).

It appears that in the brief time Rucker had to take Bundy's work and make it his own, he couldn't put his authoritative stamp on the proceedings. As Shakespeare's play unfolds, there's a definite sense of two sensibilities interpreting the script and neither quite prevailing. There are moments in the melancholy comedy when the cast simply stands around -- not going left, not going right. Then, abruptly, there's a moment when a dance routine suddenly occurs and, later, a circus-like military drill routine.

In the best of circumstances, All's Well That Ends Well is a tough nut to crack. The focal character is Helena (Dana Green), one of Shakespeare's many brainy ladies. Apparently, she's brainy about everything but love; she sets her heart on Bertram (Nicholas Heck), her ward's son, who doesn't return her affections. Although Helena contrives to win the resistant lad by curing the debilitating fistula of the King of France (the excellent John Cunningham) with her late physician-father's remedies, she fails to do so. They two are wed under orders of the King, but Bertram prefers battle to bedding his wife, so he leaves France for combat in Italy. Helena hies herself there and concocts a scheme by which she can make the man love her. She succeeds -- although the question in most contemporary minds is likely to be, why did she bother?

It was probably Bundy's notion to set the play during the 1950s, when the Dior look proliferated. (Mike Floyd designed the women's petticoat-skirt fashions.) Bundy may well have had input in regard to designer Zane Pihlstrom's light-but-classical sets, with three upstage doorways hinting at Shakespeare's Globe. It was probably also Bundy who, having determined that he wanted '50s music, selected the songs played and sung -- but it's anybody's guess why he or sound designer Andrew Nagel included "Arrivederci, Roma," when many of the play's later scenes occur in Tuscany.

It's hard to say why the cast so often looks at sea, though a lack of anywhere to sit has something to do with it. Because only the occasional wrought-iron garden chair or camp stool are provided (the French King has a wheelchair), the players are constantly circling each other while they converse. Doing so, they often seem to be waiting for further guidance that never came from either Bundy or Rucker.

Even an actress as reliable as Kathleen Chalfant, though looking like a '50s fashion plate in the scoop-necked outfits she wears as Bertram's mother, the Countess of Rossillion, does too much hand-chopping and not enough emoting. Green, who resembles Audrey Hepburn, conveys Helena's intelligence but is constrained by having to exchange lines with Heck, who comes off as callow rather than caddish. The actors who do manage to squeeze some juice into their parts include Helmar Augustus Cooper as Lafew, Bryan O'Neill as Reynaldo, and especially Richard Robichaux as the cowardly Parolles.

Throughout the life of Queen Elizabeth I, the men with whom the monarch associated were inferior to her, much as Bertram is to Helena. Perhaps Shakespeare, who often wrote with the court in mind, was defending her majesty by depicting a canny, healing woman making the wrong choice in marriage? Whether or not all ends well in the marriage of Helena and Bertram, all has ended only adequately in this troubled production.