All’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare. Directed by Tina Packer
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"A bright particular star."
Nigel Gore as rock-singing troubadour, Lavache; photo: Kevin Sprague
As has been pointed out in numerous articles published about this production it might have been titled "All’s Well That Ends Well, the musical" in this new version presented by Shakespeare & Company. It is my guess that this endeavor to cover up the minor aspects of this little known Shakespeare play was done with somewhat less confidence than is usually placed on the musical versions of plays. The lyrics have been assembled from a variety of period sources including three with lyrics by Will S. and other from sources that include King Henry III and historical troubadour songs according to the lyric sheets. The new music is by Bill Barclay the resident composer for this company who also provides the incidental music. With ten songs and thirteen musical moments using them, this show has as much of a score as any traditional show. Having so much musical diversion does alter the play a great deal.
The story here is a slight one: Bertram and Helena have been raised together and she is in love with her foster brother. He is noble and she is not. After saving the life of the King of France, Helena is granted the opportunity to select a husband and she chooses Bertram. He marries her, in duty to his king, but refuses to bed her, leaving her a virgin and going off to Italy to fight for the Duke of Florence. She becomes a humble pilgrim and heads for holy land. En route she stops off in Florence where she hatches a plot to fool her husband into sleeping with her and getting her "with child," thereby entrapping him into marriage. Oddly, it does sound like the perfect plot for a musical comedy.
The score Barclay has created is a rock score and the featured singer is actor Nigel Gore, whose English accent and unshaven appearance does give him a late Rolling Stones persona. His voice, amplified through an old-fashioned mike, takes on all of the gravel on the road between Florence and Rossillion, the province in France from which Bertram hails. He is accompanied by wonderful instrumentalists, many of whom also play roles in the production. Gore, as Lavache, also supplies much of the verbal comedy for which this playwright is rightfully famous, using puns and side-of-mouth delivery.
Gore is surrounded by extremely talented people. On the comedy side there is a wonderful performance by Kevin O’Donnell as Parolles. He is over-the-top most of the time and deservedly so for the character is such a selfish, ridiculous person that he makes Shakespeare’s other big-time "warrior" Sir John Falstaff seem to be a reasonable sort of guy. O’Donnell, late in the show returns with his ego and his reputation destroyed and turns in a most sensitive portrayal of the man who cannot live up to his own bluster and fame. Douglas Seldin as his drummer boy, is wonderful to watch.
Elizabeth Ingram as Bertram’s mother, the Countess of Rossillion, is lovely, graceful, entrancing and endearing. Her belief in her son’s inherent goodness never lags and her devotion to her step-daughter/daughter-in-law is wonderful. As her friend Reynalda, and even more so as Widow Capilet, Ginya Ness turns in touching performances. Brittany Morgan as the widow’s virginal daughter has a tougher task portraying the exuberant and willing girl who ultimately turns loyal and trusting in aiding Helena’s plot. She does very well in this role, even when Diana’s motives are hard to grasp. Grace Trull is a perfectly fine pregnant friend to Diana.
Rondrell McCormick is an elegant Duke of Florence and Dennis Krausnick brings Lafew to life in his scenes wherein he seems to be the devoted friend and servant of too many different characters. Timothy Douglas is an imposing and delicious King of France. In the last act he becomes a harsh, demanding monarch while trying to sort out lies and fabrications. He handled all of that very nicely.
Jason Asprey is Bertram and he grows handsomely from boyishness to manhood, from irresponsibility to commanding presence. The transitions in the writing are not as smooth nor as reasonable as the transitions in the stage sets in this production and to make them seem reasonable takes a lot of work. Asprey pulls off the near impossible in the final scenes as he learns of the deceptions women can create.
In her first appearance with the company Kristin Villaneuva, a singularly beautiful lady, pulls off the coup of the season with the role of Helena. She neatly transforms this character into the center of attention in such a simple manner that when she is off stage for a time, you begin to worry about her. When she is there, she has everything possible going for her: physical beauty and dexterity, a voice that sings when she speaks, a transforming personality. She is a find that Packer and company would do well to put under some sort of long-term contract. Her Juliet would be divine and her Rosalind would be a thrill.
The set for this production is functional and fulfills more than the simple needs of the play, becoming almost as musical as the many songs. Susan Zeeman Rogers should be congratulated for even making the two chandeliers seem necessary. Jacqueline Firkins has provided well-designed and appropriate costumes for this show and Les Dickert has performed no mean task in lighting simultaneous spaces to guide the eye. Susan Dibble’s dances are just right in this production. Fight Director Ryan Winkles has performed his appointed tasks with perfection.
Don’t go to this show expecting either a memorable musical or great Shakespeare. However, the bright particular stars of this show are in abundance and very well worth your three hours of attention. The company they keep is better than the script that holds them in place.
Jason Asprey and Kristin Villanueva; photo: Kevin Sprague
Kevin O'Donnell as Parolles; photo: Kevin Sprague
All’s Well That Ends Well plays in repertory through August 31 in Lenox, MA at Shakespeare & Company. For ticket information call the box office at 413-637-3353.