All's Well That Ends Well.
This production elevated Shakespeare's comedy into an intense drama of great emotional power. A strong sense of personal development in Helena and Bertram gave added weight to their final reconciliation. On the surface, this was a simple, straightforward production, with few obvious concepts, but the overall effect was unexpectedly serious for a play usually performed with a lighter touch.
The set featured marble-like columns, joined together by platforms that stretched across the back of the stage. These platforms served as benches to sit on, as well as a place for the actors to stand. Indoor scenes were often staged in the rectangular space, behind the platforms. The elegance of the design was consistent with the interior or exterior of a noble house. Plaintive French and Italian ballads were sung on stage by two male "street singers" and added to the serious tone of the play. A translucent backdrop helped convey a sense of place. For example, when Helena arrived in Florence, the backdrop showed the recognizable skyline of Florence, complete with the Medici Duomo.
Helena's journey and the struggle to fulfill the seemingly impossible commands of the husband who deserted her became a process of self-realization rather than a riddle simply to be solved. And in the end, Bertram must also prove worthy, not only for his own sake and Helena's, but also, for the people around him. The older generation--Bertram's mother, and his surrogate father, the King of France--had a stake in seeing the future realized through their children. Both the Countess and the King elevated deserving maidens, Helena and Diana, because their society needed lawful wives and legitimate heirs. This production reinforced that concern by the tragic pregnancies of Isbel and Mariana. In 1.3, when Lavatch, clown to the Countess, spoke of his "flesh and blood" and his desire to marry, Isbel appeared in front of them, heavy with child. But in 3.2, when Lavatch returned from the French court, he had lost interest in Isbel, and she appeared again, her face contorted with tears and distress. In Florence, the Widow's neighbor, Mariana, held a child in her arms, as she warned Diana of the "misery ... that so terrible shows in the wrack of maidenhood." Mariana's tragic attitude implied that her baby was illegitimate.
These examples of ruined virginity added weight to the Widow's concern for her daughter, and their desperate need for a dowry. When Helena paid the Widow in 3.7, and promised her another "three thousand crowns" for Diana's help in tricking Bertram, the Widow seemed more prudent than mercenary. In retrospect, Helena's rhetorical contest with Parolles in 1.1, concerning the defense of virginity, now seemed more significant, and Bertram's attempt to seduce Diana more sinful and dangerous. This production implied a feminist conspiracy to defend the honest virgins, Helena and Diana, from the masculine designs of Bertram and Parolles. In 2.3, when Parolles helped convince Bertram to abandon Helena, and go "to th' wars!", the two men shared a bottle of whiskey. And in 3.7, when the Widow agreed to help Helena, the two women sealed their bargain with a drink.
But Helena needed more than just the Widow and Diana. This production emphasized the way all levels of society helped Helena and Bertram to reach the promise of happiness represented by marriage. For example, Lafew demonstrated his function as a courtier with special access to the King. In 1.2, he used his cane to prevent Parolles from approaching when Bertram was presented at court. This function was more obvious in 2.1, when he assisted Helena in gaining an audience. In 5.1, a desperate Helena rejoiced at finding a Gentleman who could present her petition to the King. At that moment, Helena, the Widow, and Diana were traveling without attendants. Their journey to France seemed endless. Exhausted, the Widow and Diana sat on their luggage in 4.4, until their "wagon" was "prepared." They held Helena's umbrella over their heads, as if waiting in the rain.
That umbrella was part of Helena's traveling outfit--an outfit that featured a satchel-like carpet bag and a hat with a feather, reminiscent of Mary Poppins. Wearing heavy black shoes and a plain dark suit, she seemed more like a governess than the bride of a Count. When she cured the King, she placed a businesslike apron over her blouse, looking very much like "a poor physician's daughter." But in the last scene, her appearance changed as she assumed the rank of nobility. Wearing a salmon-colored gown of taffeta, her pregnancy obvious, she held the letter from Bertram like a talisman. Deserving at last, her quest for recognition fulfilled, Helena carried the future in her womb, and the Count's ring, the symbol of his title, in her hand.
The exposing of Parolles was represented as an important service done by others. And although the comic elements of Parolles's capture were not ignored, the action never descended into farce or fantasy. When Lafew first exposed Parolles's cowardice in 2.3, he pulled a blade from his walking stick and threatened him. And when Parolles tried to stab himself in 4.1, he seemed ready to break the skin. At the end of 4.3, when the French Lords finished with Parolles and left him alone on stage, he said: "Captain I'll be no more," and appeared to shake off a great burden, relieved to drop the facade. In keeping with a sense of realism, his uniform contained only a few extra sashes, to complement the red epaulettes worn by French officers, instead of the extreme gaudiness often used in other productions.
Bertram also needed help to become worthy of Helena. In the final scene, Bertram, no longer in uniform, wore formal attire--a black frockcoat and tie--as if leaving his youth and indiscretions behind. The play opened with a portrait of his father onstage, and when he entered at the end, a matching funeral portrait of the supposedly dead Helena stared down at him. Bertram was stunned by the living Helena--an apparition in her gown and matching slippers. At the very end, when the other players left them alone, Helena and Bertram approached each other warily.
They approached, but did not touch. Instead, sitting with their backs to each another, Helena placed a child's toy--a miniature rocking horse--on the platform between them, and touched it so that it rocked gently back and forth. When it stopped, Bertram, unable to look Helena in the face, reached out and touched the toy. It seemed symbolic of their new role as parents, and that now--his fate inescapable--he accepted his marriage, and together, they would try to make it work. This was not the obvious happy ending to a comedy, but rather, a sober and serious beginning.
ROBERT KOLE, Queens College of the City University of New York