Shakespeare Theatre Company’s sprightly production of All’s Well That Ends Well emphasizes the many opportunities that the Bard has created for comedy, rather than burrowing into his darker themes. Moreover, while director Michael Kahn hasn’t changed the text, by transporting the characters from Elizabethan times to the period when World War I is breaking out, he creates a contemporary framework which helps bring the evolving role of women into sharp focus.
The ostensible star of the production is Academy Award nominee Marsha Mason as the crafty Countess of Rousillon; and while she gets the play’s first words, Kahn smartly has her stride briskly onstage and immediately begin speaking, choking off the recognition applause before it mushrooms.
As the play begins, we learn that the Countess is happy that her commoner ward Helena (Miriam Silverman) wishes to marry her son Count Bertram (Tony Roach) — who does his best to avoid the union. But his plan is thwarted when Helena saves the life of the King of France (Ted van Griethuysen), who then decrees that she can choose any man she wants for a husband. She chooses Bertram; but he goes off to war rather than live as a husband. Undaunted, plucky Helena uses her wiles, feminine and otherwise, to get her way.
The character of Bertram is a challenge to like or understand — he simply doesn’t seem worthy of fair Helena’s affections — and it doesn’t help that Roach’s performance is rather colorless in contrast to the vivid work turned in by everyone else in the cast. Fortunately, Roach does liven up on a few occasions, mostly as he expresses frustration over being forced into an unwanted union.
Silverman skillfully blends strength and vulnerability as Helena, helping us understand her adoration of a cad. She and Mason show us determined, focused women, in contrast to many of the male characters, even those being tempered by war. Here, the ladies lead the way past all obstacles with traditionally “male” actions, allowing the raw young men time to mature.
Also standing out in the ensemble is van Griethuysen, poignant as the physically faltering, but valiant, king in act one, and roaring back to life as a lion in winter in act two. Michael Bakkensen delightfully steals numerous scenes as cowardly Parolles, handling the character’s exaggerations and pretensions with a comic flair which mitigates his eventual comeuppance.
Robert Perdziola’s colorful period costumes become brighter in the second act, as does Court Watson’s scenic design, which has placed an “iron” framework of widely-spaced arches on the Lansburgh Theatre stage, moving set pieces in and out as required for the various locations.
All in all, this All’s Well is a well-polished, amiable excursion that will please both those viewing this work for the first time, as well as those who have seen the play before.