All's Well That Ends Well

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All's Well That Ends Well.

Presented by Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven, Connecticut. April 21-May 20, 2006. Directed by James Bundy and Mark Rucker. Choreography by John Carrafa. Music by Matthew Suttor. Scenic Design by Zane Pihlstrom. With Kathleen Chalfant (Countess), Nickolas Heck (Bertram), Helmar Augustus Cooper (Lafew), Dana Green (Helena), Richard Robichaux (Parolles), John Cunningham (King), Nick Corley (Lavatch), Dale Soules (Widow), Erin Felgar (Diana).

In the past decade, All's Well That Ends Well, both in criticism and on stage, has been rediscovered. I have recorded close to 100 productions since 2000; and in 2005-6 there were four in the greater New York area alone, all different and distinctive. Yale Rep's production once again showed that All's Well is not "unfortunate" (the eighteenth century's characterization) or a "problem" (Boas's bewildered 1896 designation), but intriguing and even radical. Not as visually striking as David Bassuk's Purchase Repertory production or as subtle as Darko Tresnjak's for Theatre for a New Audience, the Bundy-Rucker production demonstrated how careful smoothing of the script's rough spots can produce a moving ending, one that justifies Lafew's overwhelmed confession: "Mine eyes smell onions: I shall weep anon."

The understated opening promised far less than the production eventually delivered. The whole first half extended the funereal mood too long. The Countess lacked emotional range: her expressions of support for Helena were expressed more in the language than her body, and the court scenes (notwithstanding an admirably played infirm King) likewise further depressed the play's mood. Helena was also played in the early scenes with puzzling restraint; I had last seen Dana Green in Orpheus Descending at Stratford and expected a more ebullient performance. Her discussion with Parolles about virginity was pedestrian; her soliloquies ("our remedies oft in ourselves do lie ..." in 1.3; and later, "'Till I have no wife, I have nothing in France ..." in 3.2) were low-key. Her healing of the King was matter-of-fact, without either sexual suggestiveness or implied providential powers: she was neither magical healer nor learned "Doctor She." The acrobatic parading of the candidates for her hand seemed forced. Paradoxically, however, a restrained Helena made for a more sympathetic Bertram--perhaps the production's most surprising achievement.

The play's greatest challenge is always how to make the underscripted "hero" attractive--or else so unsympathetic as to intensify (as Hall's 1992 RSC production did) the salvific rescue at the end. Nickolas Heck's Bertram is the most charming I have seen or discovered since Ian Richardson's in 1967: courteous, even to Helena, grateful to the King, he had no sense Helena would choose him, was puzzled rather than angry when it happened, and pragmatically accepted the King's insistence of an instant ceremony, ingeniously staged in an upstage cloister while Parolles and Lafew verbally sparred downstage. Even when he wooed Diana it was more of a good-natured lark, which the audience accepted as part of the romantic romp which the second half of the play turned into. Clearly avoiding any hints of a "dark comedy" or "problem play," the production took the play's title seriously. A hilarious combination of schmaltzy Italian songs popular in the 1950s ("Torna a Surriento," "O Come Prima," "Arrivederci Roma," etc. …