By Peter Marks
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; C02
It's imperative for a theater company with "Shakespeare" in its name to tackle the thorniest plays in the canon from time to time, the ones over which academic types wage battles and audiences scratch their heads. Because, really, where else are you going to get the widest-angle view of the Bard? Practically anyone can draw a crowd with "Hamlet" or scare up a few laughs with "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
But "All's Well That Ends Well"? Now that's a challenge for the grown-ups of the stage. Possessed of neither the most engaging characters nor the subtlest lines (about the heroine, a lord says: "We may pick a thousand salads ere we light on such another herb"), the play is a test of both ingenuity and patience.
I'd love to tell you that Shakespeare Theatre Company and director Michael Kahn have cracked the code and delivered an "All's Well" that starts well and ends well. The ho-hum progression of scenes in the Lansburgh Theatre argues otherwise. This visually impoverished production, brightened occasionally by a glimmer of resourceful casting, gives the impression of a roomful of capable people having an off day. From costume designer Robert Perdziola's uninspired, vaguely Victorian-era duds to Court Watson's drab arched set to the forlorn musical transitions by Adam Wernick, the often-tranquilizing proceedings assert their authority in no particularly heartening way.
The elusive charms of "All's Well" create long odds for even the most skilled practitioners. The play concerns the bizarre campaign by Helena (Miriam Silverman), a doctor's daughter raised in the household of a countess (Marsha Mason), to compel a man to love her. The countess's son Bertram (Tony Roach) is ordered by the king of France (Ted van Griethuysen) to marry Helena, after she has come to court and used her dead father's medicines to cure the monarch of a fatal illness. Pressed into a union he detests, Bertram flees to the army and a war in Italy -- pursued, naturally, by the relentless Helena.
You get whispers of other plays, such as "The Winter's Tale" and "Twelfth Night," in the far-fetched mechanics and flinty characters of "All's Well," but the jokes and offhand plot twists here do not as readily reveal to us compelling views of the workings of the human heart. Helena's dogged devotion to the cause of being with Bertram -- who, in Roach's bland portrayal, makes you wonder further what all the fuss is about -- takes ever odder turns. You can almost imagine a guest spot for Helena on daytime television: "Next on 'Oprah': 'I slept with my soldier-husband without his knowing it, and then I had him convinced I was dead!' " Even the greatest minds mankind has known are capable of devising stories that require some help.
On this occasion, alas, help rarely arrives. The performances for the most part are rather antiseptic; you certainly develop no investment in whether Silverman's Helena finds what she's after. (The question of what exactly she hopes to gain is not without interest; it's just never posed as a lively matter of concern in this production.) Michael Bakkensen makes for a smirkingly unfunny Parolles, the coward awash in vanity who works for Bertram. Mason, whose movie performances earned three Oscar nominations in the 1970s, here gives a fairly one-dimensional account of her role, defining the countess mostly by way of worried looks.
Only the wily stage veteran Paxton Whitehead, as a feisty old French lord, finds ways to convey a sophisticated relationship with Shakespeare's elan and language. One wishes Whitehead's buoyant effect would have gone viral in the Lansburgh. As it is, everything around him just seems unwell.
All's Well That Ends Well
by William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Kahn. Lighting, Charlie Morrison; sound, Martin Desjardins; choreography, Karma Camp; voice and text coach, Ellen O'Brien; literary associate, Akiva Fox. With Adam Green, Natalie Mitchell, Caitlin O'Connell, Nick DePinto, Conrad Feininger. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Oct. 24 at Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Visit http://www.shakespearetheatre.org or call 202-547-1122.