Bitter Past

Shakespeare’s always up to something. Even in plays that feel written in haste, like All’s Well That Ends Well, the Bard’s twisting conventions and turning tables.

Most of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies begin with an arranged marriage: the female having no say in choosing a husband. Her father decides and, as so often happens, loathes the man she loves in secret. But what if the golden slipper were on the other foot? What if the woman — Helena in All’s Well — were free to choose her mate with the king’s blessing? And what if her intended, rich young Bertram, flat refuses enforced wedlock? In All’s Well, Shakespeare takes a social given of his times and dumps it on its ear.

An “unseasoned courtier,” Bertram wants no truck with a “poor physician’s daughter.” And even though Helena has intelligence, looks, virtue — plus, she’s nuts about him — he’d rather go to war than marry beneath his station.

What follows is one of the most intrepid quests in romantic literature. Drama’s first female M.D., Helena heals the dying king with a miraculous 11th-hour cure (the “very hand of heaven,” says Lafew, an old lord, who calls her “Doctor She”). Her reward? She wants Bertram. When he rejects her, Helena goes on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella, one of Europe’s holiest shrines. To win Bertram’s hand, if not his love, she devises a scheme so impossible that an oxymoron can’t contain the contradictions: she will wear his ring and bear his child. When it comes to single-mindedness, Helena has few peers, aside from Grail seekers.

And for what? When we first see Bertram in the Old Globe’s production, we see what Helena sees: Graham Hamilton makes him a square-shouldered, decent-enough guy. In the play’s early, funereal scenes anticipating the king’s death, Bertram stands out even more because he’s got some spark. But the more we see of him — his lying, womanizing, rampant self-centeredness — the more he nosedives, and Kimberly Parker Green’s pristine Helena, who sheds her glasses and ponytail, rises. It’s as if they’re riding Fortune’s Wheel. The higher she ascends, the lower he plunges.

Still she persists, in what comes to look more like an obsession than love. You almost want to call time-out and interview the leads: “Helena, what can you possibly see in this dude?” “Bertram, what don’t you see in her?” — or, as much to the point, “doth’nt she persist too much?” Over the years, audiences and critics have had a “problem” with this comedy, but I never have. It’s much more lifelike than most of the happy-enders. How many relationships do you know, this minute, that you’d swear don’t have a prayer? How many weddings have you attended where people whisper, “Give it six months” and are being optimistic? All may be well that ends well, but at the ending of All’s Well, Helena and Bertram have only just begun.

At the Old Globe, director Darko Tresnjak relocates the play in late Victorian times, which allows Linda Cho to dress the cast in formal attire: civilians in cold charcoals, the soldiers in bright reds, blacks, blues, and gold braid. Tresnjak counters the stiff-upper-lip surface with bawdy undercurrents, including, in the scenes set in Florence, a frontal view of Michelangelo’s Goliath-sized statue of David upstage —and, as t’were, upstaging all below.

Christopher R. Walker’s always-useful background music announces the statue’s arrival with Julius Fucik’s rousing march, “The Florentine.” And the looming, heroic figure also underscores Helena’s idealization of Bertram (earlier she addresses a miniature version of David and calls it Bertram). It also shows that, as she says, she’s more than just “religious in mine error.”

Much of the fun comes from secondary roles: Jim Winker is excellent as the crotchety king of France (“wrapped in dismal thinkings”); Kandis Chappell, Charles Janasz, and Celeste Ciulla, as expected, do capable work in throwaway parts. And Bruce Turk is special as Parolles, the braggart soldier who, as his name implies, is all words. Bertram’s cynical buddy betrays his friends and gives crucial military secrets to the enemy. (Parolles exists, one suspects, so Bertram won’t seem so bad.) In the end, Parolles becomes both human and a threat — like Helena — to the male-dominated social order. Bertram, he assures the king, has acted the way “honorable gentlemen” do. “Tricks he hath had in him which gentlemen have.” And Bertram loved a woman “as a gentleman loves a woman…. He loved her, and loved her not.”

The king’s concluding lines suggest equivocation: “All yet seems well [italics mine]; and if the end so meet,/ The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet.”

In most romantic comedies where the male chases and the female flees, at some point she shows interest...and in the end has loved him all along. At the Old Globe, director Darko Tresnjak fudges a tad by having Bertram kiss Helena with boggled eyes early on, revealing a deep-seated attraction that isn’t in the text. No matter: the ending, which includes the king getting re-rejuvenated, works for those who see the glass half-full, those who see it half-empty, and for those who ask, “What glass?”

All’s Well That Ends Well, by William Shakespeare

Old Globe Theatre, Lowell Davies Festival Stage, Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts, Balboa Park

Directed by Darko Tresnjak; cast: Kandis Chappell, Celeste Ciulla, Vivia Font, Kimberly Parker Green, Graham Hamilton, Wynn Harmon, Eric Hoffman, Charles Janasz, Katie MacNichol, Kern McFadden, Nat McIntyre, Jonathan McMurtry, Bruce Turk, James R. Winker; scenic design, Ralph Funicello; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, York Kennedy; sound and original music, Christopher R. Walker; fight director, Steve Rankin

Playing through September 28; note: All’s Well runs in repertory with The Merry Wives of Windsor and Romeo and Juliet. Call the theater for days and times of each. 619-232-5623.

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