All’s Well That Ends Well, Directed by Christina Gutierrez and performed by 7 Towers Theater Company at the Dougherty Arts Center, Austin, Texas, 19 July 2014.
Reviewed by Michael Saenger (Southwestern University)
It’s always been a bit difficult to know what to do with All’s Well That Ends Well. One of the most basic features of renaissance comedy is that it points toward marriage and away from death. In this play, one of the characters—Helena, here portrayed movingly by Sara Cormier—does her best to achieve a comic outcome. The problem is that she’s fallen in love with a cad, and that man—Trace Pope’s smug and petulant Bertram—has different goals in mind: freedom, sex and military adventure. Though born noble, his mindset is oddly mundane and disappointingly ill-matched to his more thoughtful, empathetic and courageous wife. She’s too good for him, but there’s no use in trying to tell her that.
The main problem in staging this play, especially in America, is that we simply don’t experience social class in anything like the way that Shakespeare’s England did. Helena pursues Bertram throughout the play, and he would have several reasons for rejecting her that we might understand: he grew up with her in a quasi-familial relationship—that would be one. Or he could claim that she is unattractive to him, that he doesn’t like being chased, or that he doesn’t want to get married young. But when pressed, he offers simply the truth: that she is not noble, and therefore is not eligible for him. It is not that American audiences find this logic offensive—as several characters in the play do—but rather that we simply don’t understand it. Helena is the articulate and virtuous daughter of a physician, so Bertram’s snobbery seems, to us, strange and anachronistic.
Christina Gutierrez’s presentation of the play downplays class. As the audience enter, Bertram and Helena are playing cards (if one was looking, they were playing War). They seemed to be delighted with each other, and to live in a world without danger. Aside from wearing a somewhat dowdy dress, Helena gives little impression of being socially different from Bertram. In the absence of that source of trouble, this performance links itself to a different kind of social stress, the First World War. That war seems to be on the minds of many lately, in part spurred by the centenary of its inception, and in part by the fact that the Great War resonates with our own period. Unlike the Second World War, there were no clear heroes and villains, and like many of the conflicts in our own world it seemed to many brutal, inevitable and pointless.
There are Shakespeare plays that seriously consider the inhumanity of war—Henry V and Troilus and Cressida are obvious examples—but in All’s Well, war is a relatively harmless skirmish between aristocrats. The civilians who live in the war zone show no fear of the battle at all. So the pivotal question of this adaptation is, what happens to this play when the weight of war is grafted onto it? At least one answer is that it is not a comedy anymore. The funniest scene in the play, indeed probably the funniest scene in Shakespeare, is the interrogation of Parolles; a group of mischievous soldiers use a made-up language to spook the play’s braggart and expose him as a coward. This production replaced that humor with horror, as the captors beat Parolles relentlessly, dashing his canvas-covered head back and forth. This violence was seamlessly staged by fight choreographer Aaron Black, but none of it is even hinted at in the text. Other things that are explicit in the text, such as Helena’s pregnancy at the end, were not visible onstage.
The performances here are uneven. Sara Cormier negotiates a challenging role powerfully, with great elocution and a clear focus that seems to resonate with so many people who fall in love in terrible times and with the wrong person. David J. Boss shows us a Parolles who makes sense in this violent world; he is a gamester who emerges as a hero only because the world around him is even less honest than he is. He is a dapper fool, and his introductory sparring with Helena struck a sensitive and edgy rhythm. Other actors in this performance seemed not to understand their own lines, rushing through their speeches or relying on physical gestures to substitute for careful line readings; Sam Mercer’s Lavach was particularly hard to follow. Heath Thompson and Stephen Cook were powerful presences as the Dumaine brothers—though some of their speeches were more puzzling than they needed to be. Leanna Holmquist was an earthy comic Widow, quite at home with her character and phrasing, neither mugging (as other actors did) nor trying to make the lines mean something other than what they say. Stephen Price made a powerful King of France, but one would hope for more emotional range, beyond anger and joy.
The stage configuration put the actors in very close proximity to the audience, which were seated just below them in the front rows, and at the same level as the stage a few rows back—the rear rows were actually on the original stage of the Dougherty Arts Center. That configuration worked well, and the overall effect of the show was efficient and strong. At the end of the night, one is left with the powerful impression that war has changed the world of the play and that of its characters. That offers food for thought and reflection, but little room for love or laughter. There is pain in the original play, but it is the pain of embarrassment and unrequited love; that more subtle register of affect, in this production, played second fiddle to the conversation-starting power of war.