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All's Well That Ends Well

[The following review appeared in the Denver Post on August 10th.]

It's been 15 years since the Colorado Shakespeare Festival has produced All's Well That Ends Well and, based on their current effort, they should have waited another 15 years in the hope that this interval would circumvent such a misguided adaptation.

In her notes to the play, director Lynne Collins informs us that this comedy has long been considered a problem play, which she says is due to the transgression of traditional gender roles. To remedy this problem, she sets the play in 1660, when women first appeared legally on the English stage, causing a great deal of friction between male and female actors. The issue, however, is unsustainable in this adapted form, and has been explored already to superb effect in the big screen costumer, Stage Beauty, starring Billy Crudup and Claire Danes.

(Left to right) Julia Motyka as Helena, Charles Gamble as Bertram, and Geoffrey Kent as the King of France
(L to R) Julia Motyka as Helena,
Charles Gamble as Bertram, and
Geoffrey Kent as the King of France
Photo by Casey A. Cass,
University of Colorado Photo Department
As a result, we are made to suffer through a confusing extemporaneous prologue in which Collins sets up the conceit of a play-within-a-play, with the male actors preparing to play all the roles. Andrea Bechert's mock period stage is a lovely, detailed rendition, but its setting at the back of the real stage produces an endless series of half-audible dialogues.

Coupled with passages acted in the stiff, presentational style of the period, the staging saps the through line of its energy and mocks the emotional underpinnings of the story, thus creating real problems where there were none. After this initial attempt at cleverness, the metaphor is mostly abandoned until the end of the play when, again, the climax is undermined by a reminder that this was all a theatrical put on.

(Left to right) Sean Tarrant as Parolles and Randy Moore as Lafew
(L to R) Sean Tarrant as Parolles
and Randy Moore as Lafew
Photo by Casey A. Cass,
University of Colorado Photo Department
Despite the ill-conceived adaptation and awkward staging that are exacerbated further by the muddy acoustics of the hall and the run-on and over-the-top delivery of some of the actors, there are a number of performances that deserve attention.

Randy Moore as Lafew, an elder Lord, is full of mirth sprinkled with a spicy mix of wisdom and self-possession, while providing a breath of fresh air with his natural scansion and clear projection.

(Left to right) Julia Motyka as Helena and Cheryl McFarren as the Countess of Rousillon
(L to R) Julia Motyka as Helena and
Cheryl McFarren as the Countess of Rousillon
Photo by Casey A. Cass,
University of Colorado Photo Department
The emotional ballast of the play is first revealed when Cheryl McFarren as the Countess and mother to Bertram, counsels Helena. McFarren's heartfelt, communicative style and judicious exercise of personal power remind us of the moral forces at work.

Sam Sandoe impresses in contrasting roles: finding the rhythm of the fool, Layatch, as well as the genial but formidable currents of the wry and watchful Old Widow of Florence.

Elgin Kelley deftly provides Diana, the Widow's daughter and an object of Bertram's advances, with an impressive arc that circumscribes an initially na´ve and flirtatious young woman and her transformation to a sublime and astute courtier.

Clare Henkel's elegant period costumes are another bright note in an otherwise tonally-challenged composition. Given the distortions created by the interpretation of the play, it's hard to tell whether the excesses of Helena and Bertram were actor- or director-driven, so the performances of Julila Motyka and Charles Gamble are outside the scope of this analysis.

Let's be frank, the world's greatest dramatist didn't get there by being confused: In Shakespeare, there are no problem plays, only problematic interpretations. The root of the issue is the refusal by entrenched academic and ancillary industries to face the authorship question.

William Shakspere (sic—the most common spelling of the six extant signatures we have of this barely literate glovemaker's son) didn't write the plays, sonnets, epic poems, etc.—they were written by "William Shake-speare," one of the pen names of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, whose entire life is detailed in the canon.

The importance of this issue could not be plainer, as this production so tellingly illustrates. By ignoring the biographical context for the plays, we risk losing the heavenly language and stunning insights of our greatest dramatist and poet to the purgatory of boredom and irrelevancy.

Once de Vere's life is illuminated, we see that this play is filled with biographical details, beginning with Bertram's petulant refusal to consummate his forced marriage to Helena, continuing with "step-sister" Helena's budding confusion over her relationship with Bertram, moving forward with Bertram's profligate behavior throughout, climaxing in the famous "bed trick," and culminating with the resurrection of Helena.

These same marital issues and personal themes are central to Othello, Cymbeline, Much Ado About Nothing, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Measure for Measure, and The Winter's Tale, and reworked and referenced in a variety of other plays and poems.

Next time around, we suggest an adaptation in which Bertram is modeled on de Vere and Helena as Anne Cecil. Problem solved: the story is a clever metaphor for actual events with which the entire Elizabethan court was familiar and knowledge of which we owe ourselves and our posterity the pleasure.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of All's Well That Ends Well runs in repertory with A Midsummer-Night's Dream, Julius Caesar, The Servant of Two Masters, and Around the World in 80 Days through August 17th on the University of Colorado-Boulder campus. 303-492-0554.

Bob Bows

 

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