The publicity photo for CalShakes' All's Well That Ends Well suggests that the company has gone all Fatal Attraction for its last show of the 2004 season. A naked woman holds a naked man's face to her own; she could be loving him, she could be about to snap his neck, she could be planning both. He looks like he expects the latter. "You always HUNT the ones you love," reads the tagline, and the whole image is rendered in black, white, and blood-red.
Don't buy it. In this cheerful production of Shakespeare's lightest "Problem Play," the scheming Helena is, to quote Brian Roberts in the film version of Cabaret, about as fatale as an after-dinner mint. Yes, she lays a series of careful traps for the hapless Bertram, but she's just so smart and adorable doing it it's hard to think of her as the manipulative airhead she's too often characterized as. It seems that director Lisa Peterson wants to get All's Well out from under the cloud that haunts the Problem Plays, creating a candy-colored, mischievous take on the girl-gets-boy story. There's drumming and dancing here, a man dressed in outrageous flame-emblazoned spandex, women in puffy sundresses. There's angst, especially in the shaming of Parolles, but it's generally kept to a minimum.
The story is taken from Boccaccio's Decameron and traditional folk tales. Young, orphaned Helena has become a ward of the Count and Countess of Rossillion. She also has a mad crush on Bertram, the feckless scion, who doesn't know she exists. When the count dies, Bertram heads to Paris to serve the ailing king. Helena, bereft, devises a plan: she'll go heal the king with knowledge and medicine she inherited from her physician father, and in return the king will give her Bertram to wed. Julyana Soelistyo's Helena could be the heroine of a teen novel as she plans her departure; in a sweatshirt and baby-pink flip-flops, she's a determined slip of a thing with a round face and perky voice. Hardly a bunny-boiler.
All goes pretty much to plan, except that Bertram too is young and impulsive and more interested in glory on the battlefield than in the marriage bed, sort of a return for actor Davis Duffield, who also played young and reckless in the recent Berkeley Rep production of Ghosts. Bertram marries Helena under duress, but then refuses to close the deal, and runs off instead to be a soldier. Left with a haughty letter detailing seemingly impossible tasks she must perform if she is to call Bertram husband, Helena is in agony. Wandering through Florence as a pilgrim, she discovers that Bertram is also there, and wooing Diana, a local girl with a very protective mama. The wooing in director Peterson's vision is accomplished with a guitar and three backup singers. It's a very funny touch as Duffield sings Shakespeare's best-known sonnet to Diana, who looks on from her bicycle with a perfect teenage "I am so sure" expression on her face.
Helena is able to fulfill Bertram's challenges by secretly taking Diana's place in bed when Bertram comes a-callin'. It's an interesting way to solve a problem, and the play's denouement involves much discussion of whether means justify ends and how something that's inherently wrong can be made right, and vice versa. Bertram is made to see the error of his ways, Helena gets what she wants, the king is whole, Diana is intact, and everyone lives happily ever after. Maybe.
Peterson is a visual director, and it shows here in both the design and the blocking. She uses the ensemble very effectively, whether the actors are done up in blue leather or skintight black-and-white Pop-Art leotards with ostentatious codpieces. The scene where Helena has her pick of the eligible bachelors is presented as a swirling dance, and there's a really spiffy drum corps routine in the second half.
She also gets some unusual work from her actors. L. Peter Callender, for example, is in fine form as the aged LeFew, who sees through both Bertram and the cowardly, prolix Parolles. Some of the biggest fun in this show is Callender shaking out his bag of vocal tricks as LeFew makes sport with Parolles -- meowing like a cat, doing a little high girlie voice, and so forth. It shouldn't be a surprise that he's so agile, but then Callender usually plays very dignified men who do not meow at other characters. It's a delightful change of pace.
The other big fun comes from Colman Domingo as the menacing, licentious Lavache, the fool of Rossillion's court. Peterson likes to use Domingo as the wild-card character; note that he was the motorcycle-riding rogue Autolycus in her Winter's Tale at CalShakes a couple of years ago. Domingo makes Lavache's red-gloved hands into their own creatures altogether; his overall physical control is likewise exquisite.
Part of the challenge for audiences lies in understanding why Helena is so drawn to Bertram, especially when she has her pick of the king's handsome, eager courtiers. But that's what's really naturalistic about this one: A young woman falls for a young man who doesn't want or deserve her, and then goes to absurd lengths to get him, including ignoring several stark truths (he humiliates her in front of the king of France, he lies and sneaks away to the wars, he keeps bad company, he avidly pursues Diana, etc.) that might suggest to another woman that maybe she should look for greener pastures. This is what the books call a red flag; step AWAY from the cute-but-dangerous man. Isn't a smart young woman making a foolish choice a lot more likely than the possibility that you'll go into the forest to rehearse a play with your co-workers and come out with a donkey's head on your shoulders? That you'll be separated from your spouse, brother, or parents by a shipwreck, and find them again twenty years later? That witches will predict your promotion? It could be this realism that discomfited Elizabethan audiences, but it should ring all too true for modern ones.
The other problem, and this is structural, is that the second half of the play takes a while covering a lot of ground. It has to: There's the humbling of Parolles to take care of, the false rumor of Helena's death to spread, and Bertram apparently returns to Rossillion on foot. Shakespeare probably stretched it out because Helena has to wander around long enough for her pregnancy to become obvious. So while the first half of the CalShakes production is tight and orderly, the second half gets a little murky with spinning Gerhard Richter-influenced set panels and people running to and fro. The acting, design, and music are all fine, it just takes a while to get to the payoff. But at least no household pets are harmed on the journey.
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