'All's Well': To Sleep, Perchance to Escape
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 6, 2003; Page C04
Even on the most accommodating of slopes, "All's Well That Ends Well" would be rough sledding. Perverse is not too strong a term for the vein in which Shakespeare is working in this peculiar "comedy" about a woman creepily pursuing a snooty punk of a nobleman who can barely stand the sight of her.
Over the years, literary critics have taken up the cause of this rarely performed piece as a small, misunderstood gem. George Bernard Shaw thought its spirited heroine, Helena, was a prototype for Ibsen's Nora in "A Doll's House," and other analysts have obsessively puzzled over the play's eccentric plots for clues to a nasty streak in the dramatist's psyche.
Whatever its magnetic properties for scholars, however, "All's Well That Ends Well" is a bear to sit through. The latest confirmation of this is the new production at Folger Theatre, where a talented director, Richard Clifford, and an accomplished cast led by Catherine Flye, Holly Twyford, Rick Foucheux and Rick Hammerly fail to light an innovative spark under a play that's in desperate need of one.
Clifford, who directed Michael Learned to such penetrating effect in "Elizabeth the Queen" earlier this year, takes a head-on approach to "All's Well," and the results are on the whole pretty blah. Cloaked in Victorian-era black for an opening funeral scene, the actors adopt a somber tone that the production rarely shakes. The staircases that set designer Tony Cisek erects at opposite sides of the stage are the only prominent adornments. They and Kathleen Geldard's heavy gowns and standard-issue soldiers' uniforms are merely sturdy-looking, adding to the air of utilitarian drabness.
Twyford is Clifford's Helena, the woman with the guy fixation so icky that she makes the Glenn Close character in "Fatal Attraction" seem like a mildly interested contestant on "Blind Date." The apple of Helena's eye is one Bertram (James Ginty), a priggish young man in whose house she, an orphan, has grown up. As Bertram makes abundantly plain, he has not the slightest curiosity about Helena, even after being instructed to marry her by the King of France (Foucheux), whose life Helena has saved.
Shakespeare seems almost as single-minded here as Helena, devoting most of the play to Helena's pursuit of Bertram after he runs away to war -- good thinking, Bert! (The only significant subplot concerns that notorious coward Parolles, whose function is to help us discover what a terrible judge of character Bertram is.) Though forensic psychologists might place Helena's profile in the folder marked "stalker" -- she even uses that classic Shakespearean ruse, the "bed trick," to ensnare her prey -- Twyford plays her as an earnest bloodhound, forever with her nose fixed on the prize. As with most of the choices in this production, the performance is a conventional one, and it is to some extent successful because Twyford is always an intelligent and resourceful actress. But it's just not an especially enlivening one.
Foucheux and Flye, as Bertram's mother, the Countess, both deliver solid, well-spoken portrayals, and in a smaller role, Naomi Jacobson offers her usual vivacious professionalism. As Parolles, Hammerly captures the goofiness of the character but shortchanges his duplicitous nature. Suzanne Richard's Fool, meanwhile, played in man's cutaway and mustache, is an intriguing casting decision; she's just four feet tall but convincing as a man, although the poison in the Fool's gibes is sometimes diluted by her singsong delivery.
With his baby-face good looks, Ginty tries hard to give a human dimension to Bertram, who has to be a party to the play's weird ending, a conclusion so preposterous that Bertram does, in fact, earn some sympathy. Most of my compassion, however, went to the audience members around me, many of whom sat with chins buried in their chests, breathing rhythmically.
All's Well That Ends Well, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Richard Clifford. Set, Tony Cisek; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lighting, Dan Covey; sound, Mark K. Anduss. With David Bryan Jackson, Ted Feldman, Daniel Frith, Jason Stiles, Dallas Darttanian Miller. Approximately 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Nov. 30 at the Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Call 202-544-7077 or visit www.folger.edu.