Why aren't there more high caliber productions of one of Shakespeare's most modern-feeling "problem plays" like the one now playing at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival? The all-too-small audience at Sunday's opening performance of "All's Well That Ends Well" was treated to a funny and thoughtful examination of love, sex, and marriage set amidst the class consciousness and intrigues of Renaissance England that, after 400+ years, reflect many of today's social concerns.
Much of the "problem" [some might say a "strength" that makes it modern and intriguing] is that it is hard to pin it down. Is the play a comedy, a romance, a fantasy, a serious drama...?...Well, yes...and no. There are clowns and young lovers, a bit of mystery and seeming magic, generation gaps, a war, sexual frankness, some reprehensible behavior that beggars forgiveness, trickery, class & cultural snobbery, and an "end justifies the means" philosophy by both old and young that can be found on many prime-time & reality television shows, and which is reported on the daily news. In short, the play mirors life's contradictions.
Geoffrey Sherman's able ensemble deftly manipulates the audience's shifting allegiances because we understand and identify with their contradictory natures, their familiar behavior, and the intrigues that follow. The duplicity found in many characters, the notion that privilege makes for different rules, and a suggestion that youth should be readily forgiven for acting rashly are played out for us in the two and a half hour performance...and we take sides -- and change sides -- frequently.
Act I serves as an elaborate exposition, delineating plots and subplots to unravel later on. The Countess of Roussillion [Carole Monferdini] has taken the orphaned Helena [Kelley Curran] under her protection, and treats her with motherly affection. Helena secretly loves the Countess's son Bertram [Jordan Coughtry], though he is of superior rank and class. When Helena cures the King of France [Rodney Clark] from a life-threatening malady, he grants her the pick of the French lords as a husband. When she chooses Bertram and he vehemently and contemptuously objects to her social rank, the King demands an immediate wedding ceremony, after which Bertram sneaks away to the war with his cowardly and two-faced friend Parolles [Matt D'Amico] before consummating the marriage, and sets down impossible terms that must be met before he will accept Helena as his true wife: she must get him to willingly give up a precious family ring to her, and she must be pregnant by him -- two things he swears he will never do.
Into this mix come three characters familiar to generations of theatregoers. Lavatch [Anthony Cochrane] is the court fool in the retinue of the Countess. Complete with fools-cap and patchwork costume, he has the license to speak freely, even to his betters -- and his commentaries on other characters' behavior demonstrates his penetrating wit. Mr. Cochrane plays him with Scottish gusto -- sometimes impish, and always insightful. Through him, we learn a lot. -- A counterpart is Lafew [Paul Hopper], who is played as a more genteel and graceful version of the fool who delights in aggravating others to distraction.
And then there's Parolles. Mr. D'Amico's pretentious windbag miles gloriosus, a liar and a coward, is instantly someone we love to hate, and whose unmasking is gleefully anticipated both by other characters and the audience.
But these characters are no mere distraction; they are integral to the plot and to understanding the play's themes. Mr. D'Amico's debate with Ms. Curran's Helena on the subject of virginity & marriage helps to paint her as an intelligent and independent woman, and an equal match for any man regardless of social rank. The fact that Parolles and Bertram have been friends and companions for some time suggests that their parallel behavior -- especially when attempting to save face by inventing elaborate lies to avoid responsibility and explain away their bad behavior -- might be something each learned from the other.
Yet, we are made to puzzle out the implication that punishment is right for some but not for others, that rank and privilege allows the upper class to get away with most anything, while their social inferiors are abused for the same offenses...just like today.
What follows in Act II somehow resolves many of the problems, but leaves some unanswered. There is a conventional "happy ending with a marriage", but this is managed by a number of tricks, traps, and deceptions. Having spread a rumor that she is dead, Helena disguises herself as a holy pilgrim and enlists the Widow Capilet [Celia Howard] and her daughter Diana [Lauren Sowa] to help her fulfill Bertram's demands -- the ring and her pregnancy -- by deliberately having Diana seduce him and then switch places with her under cover of darkness. In this regard, her duplicity is similar to the men's...in her mind, the end does justify the means.
The seduction scene is played as a clever battle of the sexes, with the woman clearly in charge. Ms. Sowa teases and Mr. Coughtry complies, looking ever so adolescently foolish in his yearnings. When his demands are proclaimed in public, there is nothing for him but to capitulate in dismay and discomfort; and though his reclamation to the proper and the good is abrupt, one can not help but believe that his protestations of loving Helena and becoming a model husband are prompted more to save his life than to declare an honest affection for her.
Each character in this production speaks Shakespeare's words clearly -- a trademark of this season, and a distinct credit to the company. The words and actions in "All's Well That Ends Well" provoke us to consider our own attitudes, our moral assertions, and our ability to laugh at the uncertainties of our lives.