There's a reason why All¹s Well That Ends Well is rarely performed: The play is far from Shakespeare's best. For the most part, it lacks the usual poetry and insight, and the plot is highly problematic. Helena, one of those smart, resourceful, charming heroines we've seen in other Shakespearean comedies, is in love with Bertram, son of the Countess who raised her. No doubt the women of Shakespeare's time were just as apt to fall for knuckleheads as women are now, but surely those knuckleheads had to have something going for them, some trait that could be used to gull a young girl: physical bravery, musical talent, intellect, a soulful manner, good looks. Bertram has nothing to recommend him. He's mean-spirited, callous, dishonest and a womanizer. Besides, he doesn't even want to gull Helena; he doesn't like her and considers her his inferior. And yet we have to watch her sacrifice and yearn for him in scene after scene. When she cures the King of France of an illness, he gives her Bertram as a reward, telling the sulky youth to choose between Helena and death. Having muttered the obligatory vows, Bertram skips off to war without consummating the marriage. Even at the end of the play, when he's forced to take Helena on for real (thanks to a bed trick in which she substitutes herself for the young virgin he wanted to seduce), he has no word of tenderness for her.
Still, there's some music to the play, and it can work with astute direction — but there's no such direction to this Colorado Shakespeare Festival production, even if director Lynne Collins introduces an interesting framing device. She's set the play during the Restoration, when King Charles II finally decreed that women should be allowed to perform female roles on stage. As the action begins, the actresses are taking care of the costumes while the men prepare to perform All's Well — but then a letter from the king arrives, and suddenly the roles are switched. Charles Gamble, who's been speaking Helena's words, takes off his woman's wig, hands it to Julia Motyka, and assumes the role of Bertram while she becomes Helena. This gives an interesting undertone to Bertram's hostility toward Helena, and it makes for a rather nice moment at the finale when, after we've watched the couple's loveless coming together, he approaches her silently and helps unhook her costume.
All's Well That Ends Well
Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 17, Mainstage Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org.
Motyka has the intelligence, presence and intensity to make Helena the charmer she ought to be, but she revs up too fast during her emotional speeches, flying from neutral to passionately distressed in seconds without pausing at any of the points in between; it feels as if there's a lot more acting than thinking or feeling going on. The Countess is a lovely old lady as written, and Cheryl McFarren has some nice moments in the role, though she too often seems to be channeling Queen Victoria. It's a shame that Collins made the serious scenes involving the Widow, her neighbor and her virginal daughter, Diana, farcical by casting a man as the Widow — there's plenty of farce without this. Elgin Kelley's Diana is right on the edge between wonderfully original — an innocent, spunky young girl who takes gleeful pleasure in catching Bertram out — and over the top.
Sean Tarrant, whose Malvolio was the saving grace of Twelfth Night a couple of years ago, is back as the braggart Paroles, and he's better than ever — funnier, stronger and more confident. Paroles's story follows the same trajectory as Malvolio's: Both men are narcissistic fools who receive a humiliating comeuppance, though Tarrant has made them entirely different people. Here he shows that even a laughingstock like Paroles has some complexity, humanity, even humor, and there are moments when we actually like him. (Given Tarrant's natural physical and vocal gifts, the intelligence and subtlety of his phrasing, I fear we won't be seeing him in Boulder for many more summers.) Randy Moore offers another great performance as wry old Lafew, his every word and gesture showing just what a brilliantly seasoned actor can bring to Shakespeare. Watching Moore and Tarrant together is pure pleasure. If the entire production were up to this standard, it might be possible to see this infuriatingly difficult play in an entirely new light.