All's Well That Ends Well, now playing through August 31, 2008, at Shakespeare Santa Cruz, is not really a comedy, though it does have many funny moments. Nor is it a tragedy, thanks to its turn-on-dime ending in which all of the problems that the playwright has taken such pains to contrive are suddenly tossed aside. That's probably why audiences sometimes leave performances of All's Well a little bit confused, maybe even let down. "It could have been funnier," was a comment I heard from more than one person who had seen this current production.
But today, in an age when random is the new black, the play's shaggy-dog story line and awkward transitions between humor and pathos don't seem particularly jarring, especially since the performances are as engaging as the directing is inspired. Rachel Fowler captures both of these aspects in a fine, if somber, turn as Helena, a "gentlewoman" to Countess Rossillion (Beth Dixon). Having grown up in the house of Rossillion as the daughter of the recently deceased Count's physician, she is like one of the family. Which is why her confession of love for Bertram (Erik Hellman), the young Count Rossillion, is at first too much for the Countess. But Dixon guides the Countess's emotions ably. Indeed, watching Dixon struggle to reconcile her motherly love for her son with her even more layered love for Helena, whom she'd rather was a proper daughter-in-law than a mere ward, is one of this production's many pleasures.
With the Countess's blessing, Helena sets off to heal the ailing King of France (a terrific Paul Vincent O'Connor), who is wasting away with every tick of the clock. Helena has been an observant enough daughter of her father's healing arts that she's willing to bet her life with the King for the chance to choose her husband, regardless of her low station in society. Naturally she succeeds, naturally she chooses the immature and emotionally barren Count to be her own, and just as naturally the boy spurns her sincere affections, tramping off to war with his walking id, Parolles (another fine performance this summer for Allen Gilmore, who shined in Bach at Leipzig).
Gilmore's Parolles seems to draw the best from those he shares the stage with, particularly Fowler and Hellman. In one priceless scene early on, Helena parries Parolles's arguments regarding the non-existent virtues of virginity (he views chastity an overrated commodity; she recognizes his opinion for the self-serving, randy bluster that it really is). Similarly, when Parolles convinces young Bertram to prove his manhood to himself by disobeying the King's command not to go to war with the rest of the men, of which he is not yet one, Hellman finally trades his character's sheepish devotion to duty for a pair of stones. Parolles also gives Mike Ryan an opportunity to captivate us as "the Interpreter" during the play's famous interrogation scene. Ryan injects his character with just enough Niko Bellic from GTA IV to convince us that Parolles might well believe that his interrogator means business, but Ryan's accent is not so thick that his character is reduced to parody.
Weaving his way amid these fine performances is John Pribyl as Lavatch, a lecherous, comic trickster "in the household of the Countess." Pribyl's Lavatch is genius: Whether he's shuffling into a scene to stir things up or simply standing on the catwalk above the stage to observe the mess unfolding before him, he serves as the conscience of the community, yet he never comes off as a moralist. Partly, of course, this is due to the fine material Pribyl has to work with, but Pribyl brings plenty to the table. Like a lot of people in the audience, I looked forward to and enjoyed every scene he was in.
Bertram, meanwhile, is determined to become a man by means other than killing. To this end, he pursues a Florence maiden named Diana (Caitlin FitzGerald), who with the help of her widow mother (Saundra McLain) tricks the boy into consummating his marriage with, and impregnating, Helena, thus unwittingly fulfilling his bitter promise to never recognize Helena as his wife until "thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to."
Getting that ring off Bertram's finger is this play's variation of Birnam wood marching to Dunsinane in Macbeth. While Bertram is slipping it to Helena, who he thinks is Diana, Helena is slipping a similar, but not identical, ring onto the lad's finger (at Helena's direction, Diana had made Bertram's loan of his ring a condition of their midnight rendezvous). Conveniently, Helena has received this second ring earlier in the play from the King himself, for no other reason, we may reasonably suspect, than to satisfy the demands of this arbitrary plot twist. Indeed, Helena is only able to insinuate herself into the affairs of Diana and make them her own because she has been able to do what the entire Italian army has failed to accomplish, namely, track the French forces and her beloved to their safe haven amid Diana and her mother's open-air laundromat. For someone whose entire life has been about serving a master, albeit a generous and compassionate one, Helena is surprisingly purposeful and strong-willed when it comes to going after what she wants. No wonder all Bertram can do, when confronted with the double whammy of imminent fatherhood and the return of his family jewel, is to resignedly stammer his love for victorious Helena. I didn't believe him for a second.
Director Tim Ocel works this imperfect story and solid cast like a skilled painter at his easel. Assisted by the handsome costumes of B. Modern, whose between-the-wars suits and dresses were only topped by the For Whom The Bell Tolls uniforms worn by the soldiers of France, Ocel creates painterly tableaus with his characters. We can, for example, immediately tell who the sycophants are in the King's court because they are the ones in the matching dark suits, dark ties, and pressed white shirts. The women of Florence, in contrast, are a meadow of floral prints, whose very hems seem to soften the hard edges of the function-before-form set. Finally there are the aforementioned soldiers, outfitted in leather jackets, boots, and berets. It's not complicated, and not at all random, just clear and effective theater.
All's Well That Ends Well runs through August 31, 2008, at the Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen at UC Santa Cruz. Tickets are $12 to $44. For tickets and information visit santacruztickets.com or call 831-459-2159.