The title seems to put it clearly enough, but you can't always take Shakespeare at his word. "All's Well That Ends Well," which opened Tuesday night at the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger, has always been a difficult work, riddled with ambiguities.
In the course of the play, the heroine -- the low-born, but gracious and ever-so-intelligent Helena -- finds herself going to extraordinary lengths to reclaim the husband who deserted her on their wedding night. Her persistence and gallantry, not to mention her sly subterfuges, pay off. By the end, she's won him back and, although he isn't quite sure when and how it happened, she's also carrying his baby.
It doesn't take an overly critical nature, however, to conclude that the errant husband, Bertram, is, despite his noble birth, a shallow, arrogant and self-centered cad. He lies, he philanders, he spurns responsibility. I suppose he could change, once he and Helena settle down. But Shakespeare doesn't provide many clues on that score.
So there they are -- reunited at last, after a chase that has taken them from Rossillion to Paris to Florence and back again. Hand in hand. Man and wife. Happy ending, or Hell in the making?
Maybe because director Michael Kahn is feeling optimistic these days or maybe because this is the holiday season, the Folger is opting for reconciliation. The lush strains of a Viennese waltz fill the Countess of Rossillion's art nouveau pavilion (the production is set at the turn of the century) and the characters take to the marble floor in celebration of a tale untangled. No doubt this is the pleasing conclusion. In fact, the production as a whole is pleasurably elegant -- suggesting what "All's Well" might look like if it were a mini-series about the prewar doings of people upstairs and downstairs.
By favoring the lighter end of the spectrum and softening some of the harsher impulses in the play, Kahn makes "All's Well" easy to take. But I'm not sure he makes it easier to fathom. The treacherous undercurrents have been carefully channeled so as not to engulf the characters and rob them of their final dance.
I'm not advocating darkness for darkness' sake. But if "All's Well" is more than the account of a rake outwitted by a clever and determined young woman -- and it is -- the answers to its riddles are to be found in the troubled corners of the human psyche. Bertram (Matt Bradford Sullivan) is a heel, seemingly so unworthy of Helena (Lynn Chausow) that one questions why she bothers. And it can't just be Helena's innate goodness or her sense of justice that sets her running after him.
To make the wildly farfetched plot work today, you have to assume a disturbing magnetism on his part, and a strong sense of sexuality on hers. His cruelty and her obsessiveness can't be swept under the rug. One just may be feeding the other. Whatever it is, there's more to the fable than is readily apparent.
Chausow has a lovely, grave voice and an alertness that emphasizes Helena's kinship with Shaw's confident heroines. And Sullivan captures the pasty callowness of Bertram; he's a fin de sie`cle fraternity boy, who'd rather raise Cain than a family. At the start, she gazes adoringly into his indifferent eyes. At the end, he is kneeling contritely at her feet. But I can't say the dynamics of this odd relationship are brought to light in between.
Kahn has given us instead a panoramic view of the story, greatly abetted by set designer Russell Metheny, who comes up with handsome palaces, a Paris train station, a Florentine piazza and even, at one point, a barracks locker room with functioning shower. Martin Pakledinaz's costumes follow right in step -- the women are fashionably gowned in brocades and silks; the men sport swallow-tailed tuxedos and snappy uniforms, dripping gold braid. Even the servants are crisply starched and properly decorous when they're not stealing kisses behind a column.
Last season, Kahn dangled the part of the nurse in "Romeo and Juliet" before actress Pat Carroll and persuaded her to give Shakespeare a try for the first time in her long career. Now he's persuaded Teresa Wright to do as much. She plays the Countess of Rossillion, Bertram's mother, who's as baffled by her son's comportment as we are. Wright doesn't have the voice for the assignment and she tends to flatten out the melody in Shakespeare's lines. But she nicely projects quiet concern, emphasizing what is warm and compassionate about the aristocratic character.
Floyd King -- his sunset-red hair matching the ruddy flush of his cheeks -- turns up as Parolles, one of those boastful poltroons he's always playing. But he does them well. And when Parolles is exposed for what he is, King provides us a touching moment of self-evaluation, acknowledging his cowardice and concluding that "simply the thing I am will make me live."
Franchelle Stewart Dorn, looking as if she's just stepped out of a Labiche farce (and acting as if she has, too), is winning as a vulgar Italian widow, whose daughter (Leah Maddrie) momentarily attracts Bertram's roving eye. But the dominating performance in this production is Ted Van Griethuysen's, as the King of France. An ailing monarch, suffering the indignities of a wheelchair with impotent anger and muted tears, he will be restored to health by Helena. Although he delights in his renewed vigor, Van Griethuysen indicates the King has also learned something during his long illness -- benevolence, charity, an understanding of human frailty. The performance is wise and generous.
None of that, however, solves the conundrum at the heart of this curious play. What's Bertram to Helena and Helena to Bertram? She's the one who assures us -- twice, in fact -- that all is well that ends well. I wonder.
All's Well That Ends Well,
by William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Kahn. Sets, Russell Metheny; lighting, James Irwin; costumes, Martin Pakledinaz. With Teresa Wright, Matt Bradford Sullivan, Lynn Chausow, Emery Battis, Floyd King, Brian Reddy, Ted Van Griethuysen, Edward Gero, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Leah Maddrie. At the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger through Jan. 31.