Commonwealth Shakespeare begins its production of All’s Well That Ends Well on a particularly un-well note. Director Steven Maler gives us an elongated version of the play’s opening funeral scene, acted out in a well choreographed tableau across the set’s rotating platform. The death of a Count leaves his Countess (Karen MacDonald) widowed and his son Bertram (Nick Dillenburg) to inherit his title. However, Shakespeare leaves very little mourning to be done, as a romance picks up where the death leaves off. The Countess’ ward Helena (Kersti Bryan) has her bashful, un-dowered, and un-titled eyes set on Bertram and, with the blessing of the Countess and an almost Dickensian streak of luck, soon has the King of France (Will Lebow) just about holding a shotgun to Bertram’s head ordering him to marry her.
He acquiesces, but flees the court on his wedding night to fight in somebody else’s war in Italy, and escape the bride that everybody seems to love but him. The meat of the play is Helena’s tireless pursuit of the man she loves, secretly following him to Italy, faking her own death, and plotting with some help from some new found girlfriends to satisfy the bar-bet conditions Bertram has required she meet before he will accept the marriage; a) get his family ring off his finger and b) get knocked up.
Of course she’s able to to do both these things, going as far as tricking Bertram into consummating their marriage by making him think he’s crawling into bed with an Italian maiden, when really he’s crawling into bed with her. (Given last year’s gruesome drowning sequence in Othello, I half expected Commonwealth Shakespeare to act this out, but they didn’t, so pay attention.) Helena is supremely intelligent, a self-made Cinderella. She just doesn’t show it when there’s someone else in the room. Her only flaw is so tirelessly loving someone who is completely flawed. As Helena, Kersti Bryan is magnetic on stage, so much so that it’s hard to hate her for being hung-up on Bertram. With Maler, she’s modernized the character to not be Shakespeare’s humble maiden, but more like the shy girl who’s good at math and turns out to be a hottie when she puts on a prom dress. (Remember the “bed swap” scene in Revenge of the Nerds, with the Darth Vader costume?) Likewise, Nick Dillenburg’s Bertram is less vile lord than he is stuck-up frat boy who wants a high-born trophy wife. And it’s clear that he’d rather sow his wild oats a bit before settling down, partying with his buddies in Italy who treat war like a frat party. Helena’s takes advantage of this.
Despite All’s Well‘s sad unrequited love story of a plot, it is a crowd pleaser perfect for Commonwealth Shakespeare’s large, casual audience. Maler has done well at making this production funny without an excessive coat of slapstick. The play’s primary comic diversion is Parolles, a bawdy old follower of Bertram with a thirst for battle that proves to be all talk after some of Bertram’s buddies trick him into thinking he’s been captured by enemy troops. Parolles quickly shows himself to be a coward in a hilarious staged interrogation and unlike Falstaff, Parolles’ cowardice has no honor. A lot of weight falls on Fred Sullivan Jr. (as Parolles) to make the show funny, and he does well by us, overconfidently strutting around the stage and engaging in a hilarious rivalry with Remo Airaldi, in an equally strong performance as Lafew.
The trickiest thing about All’s Well is how to end it. Once Helena satisfies Betram’s conditions for realizing their marriage contract and humiliates him in front of the court so that even his mother the Countess turns from him, is Bertram really supposed to drop all his objections to the marriage and settle? Was she really that good in the sack? Maler gives us a scene that parallels the production’s opening funeral tableau. In a self-staged grand entrance, Helena circles in on the set’s lazy Susan several months pregnant and flanked by votive candles. Bertram bows to her much like he once bowed to his mother at his father’s funeral in what seems to be (and maybe you just have to be sitting up front to see it) both a gesture of defeat and a stars-in-his eyes gaze of love at Nth sight.