All's Well that ends well.
Director Stephanie Shine's epigraph for her production of All's Well at Seattle Shakespeare Company was the second stanza from W. B. Yeats's "Brown Penny" which begins: "O love is the crooked thing,...." Thus for Shine, All's Well was primarily a love story whose heroine, Helena, fearlessly defies the twin obstacles of class rigidity and autocratic male power, while--as a Venus-figure opposing Bertram and his prancing soldiers' idolization of Mars--offering forgiveness and grace as antidotes to male selfishness and love of war. Shine's production looked back to Shakespeare's romantic comedies and forward to the magical romances, rather than seeing the play as an "experiment in the dramaturgy of power" as John D. Cox terms All's Well in his excellent study Shakespeare and the Dramaturgy of Power.
Kurt Walls's set was visually and psychologically intriguing. Seven doors rimmed the rectangular stage: three upstage-center and two each stage left and right. Shine used these doors, and strategically blocked entrances through them, to suggest the divided minds of some of her characters, especially Bertram. In this way, the arrangement of doors seemed to suggest portals to the human mind (or perhaps heart?) as might be described by contemporary psychology. The doors were also used to expedite the play's action, so that actors ending one scene exited one door while others immediately entered another to play the following scene. This staging, accompanied by musicians playing guitar and harp stage right, also created the aura of a fairy tale, where locales and actions change quickly. The rapid movement contrasted sharply with the formal opening: all the actors, not just those of the first scene, entered dressed in mourning clothes, the men in formal black suits and the women in black gowns and veils, and sat initially on straight-backed chairs. As the others exited stage left or right, the characters of 1.1 emerged from among them to begin the play. Tiana Colovos's late-nineteenth-century European costumes clearly divided the characters according to class and station; royalty wore lavish gowns and suits festooned with gold, red, and blue; Bertram dressed in formal military attire; Parolles and Lavatch wore marvelous motley with multiple scarves and multi-colored stringers dangling every-which-way about their persons; and Helena, Diana, and the Widow dressed in simple, somber clothes. As the characters moved through the set's many doors, entering and exiting now through one door, now another, distinctions of class and dress symbolically blurred until at play's end they joined into a vision dominated by Helena's love for and forgiveness of Bertram.
Emphasizing the roles of women in a romantic, fairy-tale atmosphere certainly minimized the play's darker features, including the infamous bed trick. Marianne Owen, a veteran Seattle actor, bubbled with nervous energy and deep care for Helena, and never believed that her son could really abandon a woman who so obviously loved him, especially after her determined "What I can help thee to thou shalt not miss." When she learned of Bertram's apostasy in 3.2, she darted frantically about the stage, suggesting visually a mind torn asunder by an unimaginable event. In curing the King of France of a fistula Sarah Harlett as Helena was passionate about her medical abilities and then appropriately humble when pleading for Bertram's hand in marriage. The Countess's and Helena's deep belief in romantic love was savaged by Paul Morgan Stetler's Parolles, whose urgent verbal slanders of both virginity and marriage in 2.3, concluding with "A young man married is a man that's marred," ushered Bertram off to war and encapsulated what Richard Wheeler terms Bertram's "fear of having his precarious masculinity overwhelmed by his wife" (Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies, 41). Shine created a marvelous tableau at the end of 3.1, where the play broke for intermission: as soldiers pranced about the stage in full military regalia, Helena, bathed in soft blue light, wearing a simple blue gown, and holding a red rose, stood center stage, an icon of Venus surrounded by the armies of Mars. Only with the hilarious undoing of Parolles and his drum was this vision of masculine violence chastened.
The Widow and Helena eagerly planned the bed-trick as a merited attack on male sexual hypocrisy, the "double standard" that animates Parolles's attack on virginity. Shine chose to stage silently the actual exchange; on the dimly lighted stage, Helena and Diana met at the central upstage door, and, as Diana disappeared backstage, Helena slowly began to undress as Bertram caressed her and the stage darkened. It was a powerful moment that demonstrated visually Helena's fearless determination as well as the irresistible power of human sexuality.
Bertram entered the final scene wearing a new coat, suggesting symbolically the "new man" that would emerge once his perfidy was uncovered. As Bertram protested his innocence and denied the evidence of his ring, he stumbled backwards several times, as if evading the truth that finally stood unequivocally in front of him. Helena entered through the same upstage-center door in front of which she and Bertram had met for their romantic tryst, and spoke eloquently, not vengefully, of her husband's betrayal and hypocrisy. They kissed--finally--on the lines "If it appear not plain and prove untrue, / Deadly divorce step between me and you!" With Parolles unmasked, in front of a king sitting on his throne, and before his pregnant wife, Bertram finally yielded to the romantic conviction that, as Benedick says, "The world must be peopled!" Diana's gift from the French King of the right to choose her husband affirmed again at play's end women's knowledge that they see men more clearly than men see themselves. This is perhaps the healing gift that women can give to men to make all well.
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|Author:||Shurgot, Michael W.|
|Article Type:||Theater review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2008|
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