All’s Well That Ends Well, Chicago Shakespeare Theater. It’s easy to dislike this alleged comedy. The title (originally “Love’s Labors Won”) should be “The End Justifies the Means.” The end is for the sadly smitten but plucky Helena to make the attractive but worthless Bertram love her. The means is to stalk this spoiled snob, impersonate another woman, and thereby have sex with him and acquire the ring without which he will not wed her. But Bertram remains a rancid egomaniac whose real passions are war and whores.

Set in France and Italy in the 1860s, Barbara Gaines’s redemptive staging recalls Francois Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H, another tale of a haunted woman who lost her heart (and mind) to an unregenerate soldier. Somehow this production makes Helena’s misery matter. Lia Mortensen’s Helena remains untarnished by her magnificent obsession–if anything her love for this cad makes her as noble as he is base. Tim Gregory’s Bertram is as callous as the part requires, his calculating coldness a sharp contrast to Larry Yando’s rascally Parolles. When that braggart and traitor is ultimately forgiven by his old enemy Lafew (James Harms), it seems a miracle of kindness in this relentlessly cruel play. Equally convincing are Patrick Clear’s importunate king and Linda Kimbrough as Bertram’s hapless mother. Michael Krass has clad the ensemble in awesomely accurate Victorian ball gowns and greatcoats; Michael Philippi’s imposing set pieces anchor this misanthropic fairy tale in a very recognizable world.

–Lawrence Bommer