The Folger Theater's current production of "All's Well That Ends Well" is like a beautifully played string quartet: controlled, resonant, richly textured and yet simple. The cello accompaniment during the show aptly reflects the tone of the production.
The play is considered difficult to do, perhaps because the story is a standard tale of lovers, soldiers and clowns. It has the added drawback of a hero who is rather a cad, and a heroine who is as scheming as she is angelic. It lacks the grander values of other Shakespearean works, but under director John Neville-Andrews' thoughtful hand, has the virtues of a tale well told.
The story concerns Helena, the orphaned daughter of a doctor, who boldly cures the King of France of his "fistula" (an ulcer) as part of her plan to snare the young nobleman Bertram. He is the son of her guardian, but regards her as too lowly born to be worthy of his attentions. When, as her requested reward for curing the king, she is handed his hand, he flees to Florence. There he tries to seduce a young virgin, promising her marriage and then abandoning her, not knowing that meanwhile the clever Helena has tricked him again. In the end, he is humbled by Helena's extraordinary efforts and redeems himself.
This season has illustrated one advantage of having a resident company of actors -- recognizing them helps identify the characters and speed comprehension of the plot. Company member Jim Beard is turning in one of his best performances as Lavatch, here conceived as a white-face clown who comments on events and marriage and helps expedite some of the plot twists. John Wojda is also better here as the aging king than he has been in his other roles this year. Mikel Lambert, Thomas Schall and Floyd King turn in their usual high-caliber performances, and Gail Arias shows herself to be an ingenue with some mettle as the supposedly maltreated Florentine virgin.
Guest artists Gwendolyn Lewis and Peter Webster are certainly handsome as Helena and Bertram, an attractiveness that is essential to make the plot credible. Lewis is occasionally too pushy and too angelic for a creature who is, after all, quite devious, but she's never saccharine.
Bary Allen Odom's black, white and gray costumes are spectacular. From the Regency period (1820), a time of tightly fitted jackets for men and high-waisted dresses for women, they're romantic without the preposterous elements of some of the other costume eras that the Folger has exposed us to. Lewis Folden's blond-wood set is lovely and functional but nonetheless seems at odds with the Regency period; it seems better suited to a play set in New Mexico, although it does set off the clothes wonderfully. ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL -- At the Folger through June 19th.