Review: All’s Well That Ends Well
While this play is arguably the most complex comedy in the canon, such a perception assumes that it is pure fiction based on the somewhat inconsistent and confused imagination of the playwright, with perhaps with a few source texts, or a “bad quarto,” thrown in for underscoring its presumed pedigree. But writers write what they know, even when leveraging fiction to make a statement. For example, a couple of decades ago, in an interview with the Rocky Mountain News (by Alan Dumas), Pulitzer-Prize winner Annie Proulx (“The Shipping News”) talked about the notes she takes when “people watching,” to be used later for fleshing out her characters’ details. So, if one allows for life being generally less than a perfect imitation of art, All’s Well That Ends Well becomes a detailed metaphor for the messy life of a consummately gifted writer and poet, as we discover in this adaptation directed by Wendy Franz.
During a leg of his continental sojourn in his 25th and 26th years, Edward de Vere was able to enjoy lodging at the regal Château Roussillion, not far from Tournon, in France. It is the tribulations of this household at that time, along with plot lines from Baccaccio’s Decameron, that de Vere adapted, with a heavy infusion of his own biographical roller coaster—in particular with Anne Cecil, his first wife—to create a story that is the most convoluted of all his comedies, qualifying for this genre, defined in the classical sense, because it ends with a marriage (rather than deaths, as with tragedies).
The text of the play (although not the stylish, non sequitur opening scene added by the director) begins, much like Hamlet, with a reference to the passing of de Vere’s father, Earl John, when Edward was 12, which results in him becoming a ward of the state, under the guardianship of William Cecil, Lord Burghley.
COUNTESS; In delivering my son from me, I bury a second
BERTRAM: And I in going, madam, weep o’er my
father’s death anew; but I must attend his Majesty’s
command, to whom I am now in ward, evermore
Much as Cecil oversaw the young earl’s estate and his marriage to his daughter, Anne Cecil, the King orders Bertram to wed his own “adopted” Helen, a commoner who stood her ground and convinced the skeptical monarch to try her curative. In this case, Helen is the vehicle by which de Vere highlights the advance of Paracelsian medicinals over Galenic concoctions. After the King relents and takes a chance, by which he is cured, he grants Helen’s wish to marry Bertram.
While many find Bertram’s actions cruel and unpardonable, in fact they are a direct reflection of de Vere’s own actions towards Anne, and his lifelong repentance for such, as evidenced in five plays about men who accused or suspected their wives of infidelity (and were wrong in every instance) and two plays in which a “bed trick” plays a crucial role in the resolution of the plot, with the reticent husband ending up unknowingly consumating the marriage he resisted. In short, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, was eventually able to defuse de Vere’s suspicions regarding his daughter Anne’s fidelity (and her pregnancy), which occured during the time de Vere was visiting the continent, by convincing de Vere that he was the subject of a bed trick by Anne (with Burghley the mastermind), one night while the young earl was deep in his cups, before he left on his journey.
In this storyline, the bed trick is used to fulfill the conditions set by Bertram which he thought would prevent the consummation of his marriage to Helen; providing, in this instance, a “girl gets boy” perspective on de Vere’s marriage (although he takes the opposite view in other plays; e.g. The Merry Wives of Windsor).
The production is filled with portrayals that elucidate the psychological nuances of the story, beginning with Helen (Madison Taylor), the heroine of this tale. Taylor lays bare the enormity of Helen’s task and its emotional weight, being at first undone by the prospect of Bertram (Ryan Omar Stack), whom she loves, being sent way, before digging deep for her purpose, and hatching a clever strategy to marry Bertram—suggested by his mother the Countess (Kathleen Turco-Lyon)—by curing the King (Brik Berkes) of his malady and being granted her wish as a favor by the crown.
Stack finds a delicate balance in his portrayal of Bertram—young, headstrong, and stubborn—as well as showing his commitment to the rules of nobility (in de Vere’s case, Baldassare Castiglione’s “The Book of the Courtier”) upon which he was raised. So, when he is forced to marry, he sets conditions (a revealing commentary by the playwright on his actions concerning Anne, which answers the supposition that the marriage had not been consumated by de Vere’s design, as a tactic for annulment, as well as his well-documented refusal to live with her when he returned from the continent). In this way, Stack keeps Bertram within the bounds of a comedic character who learns a lesson, and not a tragic figure turned groom.
The empowerment and refinement of the nobility is crystalized by the Countess and the King. Turco-Lyon is elegant—in bearing and scansion—and sublime with the Countess’ thoughtful and judicious tendering of advice, particularly with Helen. Berkes fully realizes the playwright’s soliloquies written for a King, exuding royal comportment and monarchical authority, although his malady happens quickly (in the space of a few scenes from upright to a wheel chair), and could use some help with makeup for dramatic effect.
Shakespeare’s clowns enjoy a unique position in the courts where they abide—being allowed to speak inconvenient truths dressed in word play (often while drunk)—and Lavach (Benjamin Reigel), a clown in the Countess’ household is no exception, pushing his ladyship to the limit without crossing the line of impudence. The through line of Reigel’s deft transitions between clever repartee and crass opinions provide a clear window for the Countess to express the nobility’s disposition towards their servants, and vice versa.
In addition to the court clown, comedic moments abound in various forms. Lafeu, and old French lord (Gareth Saxe), is sent to fetch Bertram when the latter’s father dies and his wardship begins. Thereafter, Saxe sprinkles Lafeu’s observations and conversations with witty and subtle sarcasm. Saxe works this to perfection, letting us in on Lafeu’s sometimes elusive jests.
Later, a group of soldiers, feigning to be the enemy, make sport when giving Paroles (Matthew Schneck) comeuppance for his treason in spilling the beans, as well as criticism of his commanding officer, Bertram, and his troops. Schneck gets great laughs for his obsequious cowardice and then shame-filled embarassment, when he is unmasked and discovers that those whom he renounced are standing right in front of him.
Climax and denouement
Finally, when Helen approaches the Widow (Jessica Robblee)—the mother of the young woman, Diana (Ilana DeAngelo), with whom Bertram has arranged an assignation—there is mutual commiseration regarding Bertram’s overtures and the satisfaction of planning his just desserts via a bed trick. Robblee’s understated but perceptible reaction, when Helen offers the Widow pounds of gold, is priceless.
All these subtle and not-so-subtle personality traits and social positions are underscored and ampified via Clare Henkel’s costuming—Helen’s dresses, Bertram’s finery, the general’s uniform, the widow’s mourning attire, the King’s suit, and the Countess’ elegant dresses—just to name a few.
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s presentation of All’s Well That Ends Well, by “William Shake-speare” runs through August 6th in repetory with Two Gentlemen of Verona and Coriolanus. For tickets: https://cupresents.org/performances.