All’s Well That Ends Well

Goodman Theatre

All’s Well That Ends Well, the Shakespearean scholar A.L. Rowse wrote, “has never been thought of as an attractive play…. The subject did not fire Shakespeare’s imagination…[so] it gives the impression of being thought out, rather than felt along the heart and nerves.” Academic opinion has thus generally pigeonholed the work as a “problem play,” most profitably studied for signs of the late masterpieces to come. But Goodman Theatre’s current production proves Rowse was dead wrong about the play’s emotional content. Experienced not as literature but as drama–the depiction of complex characters’ ambivalent feelings and aggressively pursued goals–the play lives in the heart and nerves perhaps more than in the mind. Much of its action is illogical. But so are most of the actions we take, especially when we’re young; why should Shakespeare’s impulsive adolescents be different?

No one would argue that All’s Well That Ends Well is major-league Shakespeare when it comes to richness of language; its quirky surges of poignance and hilarity are to be found more between the lines than in them. Happily, that’s where the focus of this Goodman production lies. Though in the past I’ve found director Mary Zimmerman inclined to substitute attitude for feeling, here she’s assembled a group of actors whose emotional expressiveness and idiosyncratic approaches to their roles amply make up for occasional technical weaknesses. With Julia Gibson’s pugnacious, insecure, charming, wonderfully fallible Helen at its center, Zimmerman’s staging offers the thoroughly contemporary story of a smart woman who makes a series of foolish choices, first falling in love with a youth who’s obviously unready for a serious relationship, then trapping him into marriage. Juxtaposed with the tale of Helen’s heartbreak is a subversively satiric portrait of “the wanton way of youth”–the inclination of young bucks to pursue women and war alike as escapes from commitment.

Helen, a doctor’s daughter, has since her father’s death come under the maternal protection of the warm, wise Countess Rossillion; the countess’s son Bertram is the object of Helen’s adoration, yet she fears to make her feelings known–in part because of the class difference between them, but here more because of her low self-esteem. Helen is an ambitious, plucky kid, however–one of the most engaging aspects of Gibson’s performance is the struggle she sets up between self-doubt and impulsive self-assertion–and she hits on a way to snare Bertram. Knowing that the king of France is mortally ill (the play was probably written within a year of the death of Queen Elizabeth I), Helen offers to cure the monarch using a treatment her father taught her; in return, she asks the king to grant her the husband of her choice.

It never occurs to Helen or the king to consider what the man in question might think, and so Helen’s seeming dream-come-true turns into humiliating nightmare: choosing Bertram in front of the king’s court, she is rudely rebuffed. Worse, when she tries to back out, the king–insulted by Bertram’s refusal to obey–forces the couple into a marriage that neither now wants. Wed in name only, they quickly separate: he goes off to war, while she goes wandering as a pilgrim. In Italy she meets a local girl, Diana, whom Bertram–“a whale to virginity [that] devours up all the fry it finds”–has been trying to seduce. Helen and Diana scheme to trap him: Diana will invite him to her bed, but it will be Helen he makes love to.

Scholarly analyses of the play bemoan the sordidness of the “bed trick” and try to rationalize Helen’s deviousness in light of her much-praised spiritual dignity. Zimmerman reminds us that the situation is more ambiguous than literary interpreters might like: she emphasizes the playfulness of the plot and the unpredictability of a young woman torn between her intelligence and her longing. As for the oft-asked question of why the virtuous Helen wastes her love on the callow Bertram, Zimmerman offers a simple answer. He’s gorgeous. As played by Brazilian actor Bruno Campos, Bertram is a pretty, pouty boy toy, just the type to make Helen lose her head and try that stupid forced-marriage trick. Especially this Helen, who recalls Barbara Bel Geddes as James Stewart’s taken-for-granted girlfriend in Vertigo, with her bespectacled, scrunched-up face and hopeful, anxious gaze that all too seldom blossoms into a confident, beautiful smile.

While physical attraction is no basis for long-term love, it’s a common enough place to start. And by the end of the play, when Bertram’s misbehavior is exposed, Helen’s feelings have deepened through suffering; the pain of rejection and sexual longing have tested and tempered her passion and made her a worthy wife. Shame transforms Bertram, humiliated in open court just as he humiliated Helen, into a loyal, loving husband–shame and the stunning news that he’s going to be a father. Campos, whose air of boyish diffidence belies a shrewd acting technique, plays the transformation as genuine and profound, not ironically as some critics think it should be; the result is enormously satisfying. Redemption and reconciliation are at the heart of Shakespeare’s art–a fact that’s often controversial today, as audiences are expected to buy that Kate the shrew is really tamed, not simply ground into submission. There’s just one thing wrong with Bertram’s conversion: if only it were so easy. Well, cynics, relax; maybe his transformation won’t last. At any rate this sincere starter marriage makes for a heartwarming conclusion that lives up to the play’s title.

Zimmerman surrounds the central romance with an array of able comic support. John Ellison Conlee is Parolles, the braggart soldier who’s Bertram’s best friend (and prototypical bad influence) until his cowardice and treachery are exposed, leading to a spiritual transformation that foreshadows Bertram’s. With his overripe delivery and dandified demeanor, the bearded, portly Conlee recalls the young Peter Ustinov as Nero in Quo Vadis?; it’s a marvelous comic turn. Lee Sellars and Marc Vann, letting their premature baldness signify a family connection, are drily sardonic as the Dumaine brothers, who reveal Parolles’s hypocrisy with the aid of Darryl Alan Reed’s mischievously mocking First Soldier. Del Close brings deadpan sarcasm to the nobleman Lafeu; though the name suggests a man of fiery temper, Close makes Lafeu a smoldering curmudgeon, downplaying lines like “Mine eyes smell onions, I shall weep anon” to pungent effect. Less effective is Jerry Saslow as the countess’s clownish servant: his prickly line readings are amusing, but their effect is undercut by too much stilted gesture. And Howard Witt’s sour King of France and Mary Ann Thebus’s lackluster (and sometimes inarticulate) Countess Rossillion fail to clarify their roles as the wise elders observing the youngsters’ foolishness with wry regret.

Elegantly costumed in mid-1600s fashion by Nan Cibula-Jenkins (Thebus’s Countess could have walked right out of a Van Dyck painting) and evocatively framed by Riccardo Hernandez’s set–a rust-colored, stuccoed, bilevel house whose walls part to reveal a sprawling blue sky–All’s Well That Ends Well is by no means a definitive reading of the Bard. Some viewers will wish for a more heroic style, more poetic line readings, more symbolically significant staging, and so on. But Zimmerman’s interpretation makes emotional sense. It speaks to our age’s skepticism while reaffirming our need to believe in redemption; and it reminds us that Shakespeare wrote about people, with all their capacity for error and for change.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Y. Exit.