There’s a reason why All’s Well That Ends Well perennially ranks as one of — if not the — least-produced comedy in Shakespeare’s catalog. To put it bluntly: What the hell is the audience supposed to take away from this play? While All’s Well has no shortage of rich characters and fun comedic bits, the course of its narrative — especially its conclusion — is nothing short of befuddling. “Huh … well then … odd …” probably shouldn’t be the final thematic thought when exiting a straightforward and traditional theatrical production.
This is no knock against the Seattle Shakespeare Company, whose production of All’s Well runs through Feb. 3 at Center Theatre. Staging the Bard’s less-heralded works is an essential part of the company, and this rendition offers a strong execution of the material. It’s just that the inherent upside of the play is self-limited.
Which brings us to All’s Well’s plot. Helena (Keiko Green) is the ward of a French Countess (Suzanne Bouchard) and the daughter of a deceased physician known for his healing potions. She is hopelessly in love with the Countess’ son Bertram (Conner Brady Neddersen), but the structure of the class system at the time makes their love a virtual impossibility. When Bertram leaves for Paris to tend to France’s ailing King (Michael Winters), Helena soon follows with hopes of concocting a potion from her father’s recipe that will save the monarch. With the King resigned to death, Helena shows up and manages to heal him. As her reward, the King promises her that she can marry any man in France and he will provide a royal dowry. Helena chooses Bertram, but he rejects the notion because despite her wit and beauty, she came from a low class. The King forces his hand, but then Bertram refuses to consummate the marriage, runs away to fight in an Italian war insisting he won’t return until his wife is dead, and tries to seduce a young, chaste Italian woman, Diana (Ayo Tushinde). Helena fakes her own death to go after Bertram in Italy, and through a series of convoluted events, all parties end up back in front of the King. Bertram still rejects Helena, and then suddenly he decides to relent, and … happy ending!
Get it? Because Helena originally wanted him to be her husband and that’s the final result, well, all’s well that ends well! Despite two hours of seeing Bertram be just the absolute worst — a classist, sexist, philandering, weaselly little gnat — the audience is supposed to be happy that Helena is finally married to the jerkiest of all jerks because it’s what she originally wanted. It just seems like … a super-terrible thematic takeaway. The positive spin would likely center on the powerful woman: “Look at this hyper-determined and intelligent woman who will get what she wants no matter what.” In Seattle Shakespeare’s own blurb about the show, the company goes as far as citing “And Still She Persisted” — which seems to be a misquoted allusion to “Nevertheless, she persisted,” a modern feminist rallying cry rooted in Sen. Elizabeth Warren being silenced when opposing the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney General in 2017. And ooof to that allusion. I don’t think it’s the best idea to equate moves of political fortitude with the unrelenting desire to end up with a man who has shown you time and time again that he loathes you and will be toxic every turn he can. Helena’s tale seems less like one of love conquering all and instead the cycle of a woman in an abusive relationship who continually makes excuses why she goes back to her man despite everyone in her life telling her to leave for good. But all’s well that ends well, right?
It’s unfortunate that All’s Well has this fatal flaw in its resolution, because the production really sings when it’s detached from Helena and Bertram’s romantic melodrama. The supporting characters shine brighter than the stars in this staging. The comedic weight of the show is carried by George Mount as Parolles, Bertram’s right-hand man and braggart soldier, and Keith Dahlgren as the Countess’ clown Lavatch (with R. Hamilton Wright’s Lafew, a nobleman in the King’s court, throwing in dashes of witty dressing-downs of the hapless pair). Both actors really sink their teeth into the grandiose buffoonery of their characters, with delightful results. While Act 1 is quite exposition-heavy (apart from a verbal quarrel between Lafew and Parolles), things really get fun in Act 2. The B-story of Bertram’s men plotting to expose Parolles for the cowardly, lying phony he is by capturing him and pretending to be a foreign army interrogating him (complete with gibberish language and a “translator”) is an absolute riot, as Mount gleefully leans into the character’s braggadocious exterior and sniveling interior. (Apparently during the 1700s, some productions of All’s Well even cut scenes to reformat the play so that Parolles was the main character. Honestly? That sounds like a better show.)
Meanwhile Bouchard delivers a rock-solid performance as the Countess, who even in her conflicted motherly allegiances to her son and her ward serves as the play’s much-needed stable emotional bedrock. Her counterpart in that sense is Winters’ King, though he takes a much gruffer, short-tempered approach to handling Bertram. And Tushinde’s Diana radiates young virtue (the way she’s cast in golden archway lighting when Bertram comes calling is a grand production touch), but really pops when she’s giving incredulous little expressions over Bertram’s words behind his back.
The deep cast and comedic spice give the show a worthwhile heft, but it’s still tough to overcome the script’s bitter final notes. If only it actually ended well.