June 27, 2008 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall
Once again the intrepid Tina Packer has shown her ingenuity and originality in dealing with the Bard’s plays, and her staging of All’s Well That Ends Well now playing in repertory through August 31 at the Shakespeare and Co.’s Founders’ Theatre, Lenox, MA, has turned an ugly duckling into a swinging, singing swan.
(L-R) Virginia Ness,Peter Davenport, Grace Trull, Douglas Seldin, Brittany Morgan
All’s Well That Ends Well is one of Shakespeare’s problem plays in which the plot (as written) is a weak one, based on a saying that is ambivalent, at best. The audience is left to decide whether or not the marriage of the warring lovers can possibly “end well.” This production, through the skillful casting and playing of the two lovers, leaves no doubts.
Packer achieves her effects, not only by the skillful casting of all the talented members that make up her large cast, but by choosing to open the play in troubadour France. As written, the play has only one song, she and composer Bill Barclay have added fourteen more musical numbers performed by a five piece onstage orchestra, cast members, and often danced to choreography by Susan Dibble.
What is playing on stage at the Founders’ is indeed a musical version of a play by William Shakespeare.
The plot involves an unlikely pair of lovers. Helena (Kristin Villanueva) is a poor orphan living on the bounty of the Countess of Rossillion (Elizabeth Ingram) and secretly in love with the Countess’s son Bertram (Jason Asprey), who is socially far above her. However, she is determined, and when Bertram goes off to Paris and is welcomed into the court of the dying King (Timothy Douglas) Helena, who has learned medical lore from her recently deceased father, goes to Paris, cures the King and is offered one wish.
Of course the wish is for a husband. All the gallant blades of the French court are lined up for her choice, and she traverses the line (in couplets, otherwise rarely used in this play) politely rejecting all, until Bertram, accidentally in line, is chosen.
Bertram objects violently but is unable to convince the King to change his promise to Helena. An off stage wedding ensues. However, Bertram enters announcing his rejection of the match with words that will echo down through the events that make up the (improbable) events in the second half of the play.
Bertram will recognize the marriage only
“When 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, then call me husband: but in such a ‘then’ I write ‘never.’ “
He then takes off for war in Florence and poor Helena returns to the Countess in the south of France.
However, Helena is determined, if temporarily saddened and almost defeated. She dons the ragged garb of beggar and goes off to Florence. There, aided and abetted by a group of local women, she accomplishes the seemingly impossible feats Bertram has insisted upon, and the play can end gaily, happily, jubilantly, and musically.
The cast is star studded with the handsome talented Asprey slipping easily in a role so different from his villainous but memorable one in “Much Ado About Nothing” or his recent brio one as Hamlet.
Ingram is convincing in her central and compassionate role, every gesture or vocal nuance so right. Villanueva, petite but feisty, is engaging as the loving but determined Helena, especially appealing in her vocal delivery and her dogged determination. Timothy Douglas as an ailing King of France, feebly sinking to a chair is, touchingly central.
In a large supporting role, that of Parolles, the cowardly foppish villain of the play, Kevin O”Donnell delights whenever on stage. While Brittany Morgan is appealing and graceful as Diana, playing the chief role of the women in Italy who come to Helena’s defense.
And then there is LAVACHE, (Nigel Gore) in a role that in Shakespeare was that of a clown in the Countess’ court. In Packer’s version, he is a world weary troubadour and present on stage much of the time, a key figure singing a plaintive solo, or boisterously performing in group numbers, the music mixing folk songs recalling Bob Dylan or Pete Seeger or energetically employing the rest of the talented musicians in the on stage band. The music of varied moods accompanies original pieces moving the plot along as well of poems and lines from other Shakespeare plays.
Jacqueline Firkin’s countless costumes are color coordinated (everyone in black and white for a mourning time in the countess’s court; all rustic among the peasant women). Many cast members play several roles, and each dons several costumes. What a flurry that must cause backstage; during one song Asprey leaves the stage and keeps returning with suitable costume additions, all charming and delightful as are so many of the touches in this charming and captivating play.
The three different locales for the action are ably provided by Susan Zeeman Rogers towering flats that flip swiftly from the white walls and flowing curtains of the Countess country home to the elegance of the King of France’s throne room in Paris or the helter-skelter vivid colors of the Florence scenes.
What with Bertram escaping to the wars, much elegant sword play is in effect thanks to Ryan Winkles.
Everybody, including all those engaged in this saucy and surprising All’s Well deserves praise including names unmentioned but whose skills made it flourish so delightfully.
Tina Packer, Bill Barclay and all the rest have convincingly proved that All’s Well That Ends Well ends very well at the Founders’. Shakespeare should be pleased.