One of Shakespeare's least-known comedies is really no comedy at all. Though All's Well That Ends Well boasts a dying king, adultery, deception and a faked death, it's no tragedy either. Most have settled on the ambiguous genre "dark comedy," but whatever label you might slap on it, the play has lurked in relative obscurity for a handful of worthy reasons.
On a recent Wednesday evening, a nearly packed house turned out for Idaho Shakespeare Festival's fifth performance of All's Well That Ends Well. As the lights dimmed, and people shuffled into their white plastic lawn chairs, Helena (Sara M. Bruner), the play's strong-willed lead character, emerged into evening twilight. Charles Fee, the play's director, opens Act I in the present day and has a modern Helena embark on a fairytale journey into the past. This effectively transports the audience back to a time when the play's ambiguous plot might make more sense.
Taken from a story in Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, All's Well centers on Helena, the daughter of a French doctor. After her father's death, she is sent to be a ward at a recently widowed countess' house. The countess, played by Laura Perrotta, is one of the play's most endearing and earnest characters. In true fairytale form, Helena falls hopelessly in love with the countess' son, Bertram (Markus Potter), just as he departs to join the king's court in Paris. Though she's a commoner and he a nobleman, Helena hatches a plan to woo Bertram.
"That I should love a bright particular star," laments Helena. "And think to wed it, he is so above me."
Helena leaves the countess' estate and follows Bertram to Paris. There, she makes the dying king a bargain: she'll offer him an elixir in exchange for the husband of her choice. Not surprisingly, the elixir works and Helena selects the unwilling Bertram as her mate. Bertram is aghast at the thought of marrying "a poor physician's daughter" and initially rebukes her.
Bruner's Helena is charmingly pitiable yet oddly maniacal. She throws herself on the ground for love, yet looks up with a glint in her eye that borders on obsessive. To our egalitarian sensibilities, Helena's character is incomprehensible. Why would a gorgeous and self-reliant woman force herself on a man who doesn't want her? And what man would prioritize class over a woman with her qualities?
At the center of all the action is Gage Williams' comically fantastical set design. Grey stone castle archways, iron scaffolding and a swirling white mist form the backdrop. A gold bejeweled chamber rises and descends into the floor, dramatically transporting cast members on and off stage. The set is cartoonish, at times strongly evocative of scenes from Disney's Sleeping Beauty. But in an odd twist, Nicole Frachiseur's costume design strays from the Gothic setting, embracing modern sport coats and pantsuits. Bruner even wears a fashionable knit beret that looks like it came off the shelves of Urban Outfitters. Though the play's setting and costuming aim to blend present and past in a modern twist, it often ends up feeling disjointed and slightly distracting.
As the play progresses through Act II, Bertram flees to Italy to fight in a war with his friend Parolles (David Anthony Smith). He tells Helena that he'll only be her husband in the event that she procures the ring from his finger and a child from his loins. Unshaken by his words, Helena bribes a young Italian virgin that Bertram is wooing to switch places with her in the dark as they make love. Bertram acquiesces to being Helena's husband, but never has a marked change of heart or character.
At its core, All's Well is a play founded on deception and manipulation. Though it's essentially a romance, the characters have a base understanding of love. To Helena, love lies in the triumph of conquest while, to Bertram, sexual partners are interchangeable and indistinguishable. Helena is so single-minded in her quest for Bertram's love that her undeniable goodness—the pillar by which all other characters are judged—is ultimately compromised.
After the audience's applause trails off, there's a mad dash to gather picnic supplies and get on the road. Outside the restrooms, Dale Baker waits for his theater companions, arms burdened with a wicker basket filled with empty food containers and wine bottles. Asked how he liked the show, Baker replies dryly, "It was a good time. Would I come again? If I had more wine."
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