Editors' pick

Free For All: 'All's Well That Ends Well'

Shakespeare
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Editorial Review

PREVIEW: Van Griethuysen plays king for yet another few days
By Jess Righthand
Friday, August 17, 2012

In Shakespeare, there are comedies and tragedies. Then there are the plays that no one really knows how to classify.

Scholars have labeled them “problem plays” because of the unpredictable, pendulum-like swings from the polar extremes of humor to the depths of drama. “All’s Well That Ends Well” -- which the Shakespeare Theatre Company is resurrecting from its 2010 season for this year’s annual Free for All -- is generally considered one of these “problem” plays.

But actor Ted van Griethuysen -- who will play the role of the King of France for the fifth time in his decades-long career -- is an expert on Shakespeare by experience. And regardless of scholarly quibbles, he called the show “superb.”

“I like the play, very much,” van Griethuy­sen said. “Some great characters . . . They all have subtleties and shadings.”

Van Griethuysen has grown intimately familiar with the complexities of this particular character since he first played the role of the king in a 1987 Shakespeare Theatre Company production directed by Michael Kahn.

By 2010, van Griethuysen already had played the role three times and was so familiar with it that when Kahn approached him to reprise it yet again, he felt he had exhausted the possibilities of the part.

However, when he found out that Miriam Silverman was playing the part of Helena, he felt inspired to give it another try.

“It was at that point that I realized that my notion of the king depended on who was playing Helena,” van Griethuysen said. “That there’s a certain interrelation -- that happens, really, in any play -- particularly with Shakespeare . . . And it makes a difference, in terms of how you see the play and how you see the character.”

For van Griethuysen, Silverman’s charm -- both personally and as an actress -- provoked in his king a more human interest in Helena and her well-being. Van Griethuysen said he felt that until he played opposite Silverman, the king’s interest in Helena had gone unexplored.

“When I first tackled the part, I thought [the king] was something like a deity or God who stepped in and ordered things around,” he said.

But discovering the king’s more human side also made him more sensitive and empathetic to the character of Bertram (played by Tony Roach), a count forced by the king to marry the lower-class Helena.

“I realized that every time I’ve done it before now, in a way, I got angry with Bertram too fast. I was ready to believe the worst in him,” van Griethuysen said.

At times during his career, van Grie­thuysen said he has learned these types of lessons after he is too old to play the part again, citing Romeo as an example. “A lot of things you learn late, and that’s the only time you can learn them,” he said. “You can’t learn them when you’re 20. You won’t know what they mean.”

Fortunately, though, since that first production in Rock Creek Park in 1987, van Griethuysen has been able to channel his new insights into fine-tuning this role. For the Free for All, he also has the added benefit of working with largely the same cast from the 2010 production (directed this time by Jenny Lord) and in the same time period of World War I.

“I’ve always said, you do these parts in order to find out how to do them,” van Griethuysen said. “So if you only get one try at it, it’s just not fair . . . This is true really of any great playwright and almost any play.”