Absolutely delightful. There is no other way to describe Oregon Shakespeare Festival's new production of Shakespeare's "All's Well That Ends Well," which opened in the New Theatre last weekend.
Guest director Amanda Dehnert has taken this rather ambivalent romantic comedy and created a cheerful, charming fairy tale. Along the way, she also teaches some lessons about love, life and forgiveness. The production positively glows.
The story is, shall we say, problematic. Our hero, Bertram (Danforth Comins), is mean, dishonorable and a real weasel. He pridefully rejects one woman and coldly betrays another. Director Dehnert, with imaginative staging and choices in emphasis, has found a way to suggest that he actually matures during the course of the action. She makes the happy ending quite believable.
Helena (Kjerstine Rose Anderson) is the daughter of a deceased well-known physician. She is the ward of the Countess of Rossillion (Dee Maaske), who has recently been widowed. With his father's death, the Countess' son Bertram is now the ward of the King of France (James Edmondson) and is called to Paris.
It is clear that Helena and Bertram have grown up together. She is madly in love with him; he treats her like a little sister. The Countess would like nothing better than to see her son marry the adorable, headstrong Helena and encourages her to go off to Paris as well, ostensibly to provide one of her father's miracle cures to the ailing king.
Helena saves the king. Helena gets to choose a husband as her reward. She chooses Bertram. He is appalled. They are summarily married even though Bertram says a lot of mean things, like she is a commoner's daughter and beneath him and, besides, he doesn't think very much of her anyway. Bertram stomps off and, with the encouragement of his insufferable braggart friend Parolles (John Tufts), subsequently runs off to the wars in northern Italy, but not before sending a nasty letter to Helena.
The only way she will be his wife, he writes, is if she can get a ring off his finger and prove that she is pregnant by him, and, oh, by the way, he won't come back to France as long as she's there.
Helena tells the Countess that she will leave France on a pilgrimage so that Bertram can return. And, uh, coincidentally, the pilgrimage goes through northern Italy.
Meanwhile, Bertram has done well for himself in the war, accompanied by the king's wise counselor, Lafew (G. Valmont Thomas). Now he is enjoying a bit of "R-and-R" in Florence, trying to seduce a young woman, Diana (Emily Sophia Knapp).
Again, coincidentally — this is, of course, a Shakepeare comedy — Helena meets up with Diana and her widowed mother (Kate Mulligan) and Bertram is revealed as the cad he is. The ladies cook up a plot. Diana agrees to a tryst with Bertram, gets the ring from his finger and Helena takes Diana's place in bed.
Having seduced "Diana" and moved on, Bertram is a bit taken aback when he gets word that Helena has died on her pilgrimage. But, hey, now he can go back to France and besides, he's a single man again. Unfortunately for Bertram, Diana, her mother and Helena have traveled to France as well. Although there is a rather nasty confrontation, all ends happily when Helena — very definitely with child — arrives and absolves Bertram, who gratefully and lovingly falls into her arms.
Director Dehnert has set this all up as a fairy tale crossed with a silent movie, complete with projected title cards. She has also masterfully taken a minor figure in the play, The Clown (Armando Duran), and created a Chaplinesque miming narrator who walks us through the action. Everything is broad strokes here. The Countess is warmly loving. The King wise and noble. His counselor, LaFew, is a sage commentator. The Widow is out of a Fellini movie and Diana is out of "The Perils of Pauline." The only characters who really have arcs are Bertram, Helena and Parolles.
Dehnert kind of, sort of glosses over all that unpleasantness in the last scene to make Bertram seem older, wiser, deeper than the rash youth that willfully stomped away from his marriage. Helena grows from a rambunctious tomboy to a thoughtful, forgiving realist. And Parolles, all bluster and braggadocio, gains a wry self-knowledge that makes him positively endearing.
Christopher Acebo's scenic design is spare, blending the pastoral with the Victorian. Linda Roethke has designed a mixture of unlikely costumes ranging from the elegant to the absolutely hilarious.
Dehnert says she wanted to present "All's Well That Ends Well" as Life, about wants, about doing right and doing wrong, about making choices and committing to them. She picked a difficult canvas, to be sure, and perhaps her result is not quite what Shakespeare had in mind. But it is an immensely entertaining and satisfying one, nonetheless.