Scarcely have I felt two conflicting emotions so intensely as during All's Well That Ends Well, the finale of Dallas Theater Center's 1996-'97 season. I was soothed and startled, delighted and disturbed by the tension between this crisp, stately staging by Richard Hamburger and the acidic sentiments of Shakespeare's 1602 romantic farce. If the author's harsh diorama about the givers and receivers of moral censure, Measure for Measure, didn't come shambling into the Court a scant two years later, All's Well That Ends Well would be remembered as the most cynical of Shakespeare's comedies. Both the effectiveness and fallibility of human endeavor are compared to the virtues and mysteries of heavenly design. The Bard's verdict? The brain may be developed into a fearsomely successful instrument, but our hearts came to us fully formed, with agendas we don't always like.
The heroine of All's Well is a woman who thinks too much. Of course, I don't say that because she's a woman, although audiences, critics, and scholars throughout the 18th and 19th centuries may have surmised as much; historically, All's Well may be the least performed of Shakespeare's comedies, and has been written about with some confusion and consternation ever since. In a modern context, Helen is guilty of thinking too much because her wisdom makes her hyperaware of her own frailty; cunning is her vindication, rescuing her from near-paralysis.
Helen, the poor physician's daughter whose fierce intelligence puts her in a position of unprecedented romantic power, commingles action and self-reflection. The concentration is as clean and laserlike as the obsessions of Hamlet and Macbeth and, in its modest way, just as fearless. All's Well is the epic journey of Helen's heart. Instinctively fearing the consequences of passive femininity, she battles social monsters and wins not only the man she loves, but more wisdom and perhaps more fuel for her melancholy contemplations.
And so it is that Richard Hamburger, scenic designer Michael Yeargan, and lighting designer Robert Wierzel have deposited France and Italy, the play's locales, onto a lot that looks to be somewhere near Mount Olympus. The calming blue sky and wispy clouds painted over the background, not to mention the sheer cotton-white walls that descend to divide and unite the characters, are present both to contradict Helen's private belief that she is not guided by any hand but her own and to support her claims that she has inherited, from her famous father, an almost holy power to heal. The stage at the Kalita Humphreys managed to look alternately serene and unforgiving, mimicking the heroine in her iron confidence and sternly analytical nature, the latter directed at herself as mercilessly as others.
Played with a brow-furrowed bravado by Susan Riley Stevens, Helen is a commoner who travels among noblemen thanks to her late doctor-father's sterling reputation. She secretly harbors intense affection for the immature but rakishly handsome Bertram (Brendan Corbalis). His mother, the Countess (Beverly May), has long ago surmised that the virtuous Helen "derives her honesty, but achieves her goodness," and so would love to see this girl possessed of impeccable good sense woo the insolent Bertram. Contemptuous of her humble origins and smitten with the macho glamour of the French War against Italy, he refuses to consider such a possibility.
Helen's hand is forced upon him by the big-hearted King of France (Richard Ramos), who fulfills her request to marry any man in the court she desires after she cures his ulcer. Bertram bolts with his two-faced buddy Paroles (Matthew Boston) for Florence and battlefield glory, cruelly leaving behind two impossible demands for Helen to meet before he'll consent to marry her. She follows him with a wounded heart and the instincts of a shark.
Which leads us to the central mystery of All's Well That Ends Well, the one that leads us past the play as a smoothly paved romantic comedy onto a bumpier, less navigated road. Why does someone as brainy and ambitious as Helen want a testosterone-drunk snob like Bertram? By the end of the play, as her machinations have overtaken her and she's changed identities altogether, we get the feeling she scarcely understands herself. Her guiding muse is Bertram's acerbic mother, the Countess, played with a kind of gliding eloquence by Beverly May. This noblewoman didn't rise to her position in life by being quiet and well behaved, May lets us know, but her sense of degree in gauging the human heart is unimpeachable. If Helen dares not trust God, she could do worse than relying on a little support from Bertram's mom.
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Even upon her inevitable victory, thanks to the driven gravity projected by Stevens, she's smart enough to sense that Bertram's bratty acceptance of her love doesn't bode well for either of them. Little undercurrents of turmoil like this one make you understand why All's Well That Ends Well was neglected for so many years. It requires a keenly observant director like Hamburger to dislodge the despair and let it float to the surface as thrillingly occasional, Loch Ness Monster-style sightings.
All's Well That Ends Well is ultimately about the identities we make for ourselves in conflict with the identities other people give us. The class snobbery that nearly victimizes Helen is portrayed with rubber-faced tomfoolery by Matthew Boston as Bertram's pal Paroles, an enjoyable performance that might be deepened if played with a bit more fiercely defended dignity. He, too, yearns to leave the position he was born into, and has constructed a shoddy Trojan horse of a patrician personality to hide inside. He's literally dragged out kicking during a long, sometimes cruelly funny exchange with the King's assistant Lafeu (Yusef Bulos), who tap dances all over the man's aspirations to nobility. Paroles is eventually undone by his comrades in a prank whose execution, as staged by Hamburger, buzzes like a feeding frenzy.
Richard Hamburger's DTC staging of All's Well That Ends Well was a revelation, one of a few Shakespearean productions that have ever truly riveted me. I'm very familiar with the tragedies and considerably less so with the comedies, but my mind's voice has always provided a more evocative reading of the playwright's words--perhaps Shakespeare will always be, for me, more effective read than performed. The fault lies not with Willie, but with something between my post-MTV, pre-millennial brain and actors and directors who've confused recitation and characterization. Dallas Theater Center brings out all the strange metaphysical yearning of Shakespeare's most baffling comedy, and in the process introduced me to one of the most fascinating heroines in English letters.
All's Well That Ends Well runs through April 20. Call 522-