All's Well That Ends Well
at Cafe Voltaire
What emerges in this staging of Shakespeare's rarely performed All's Well That Ends Well are good intentions encumbered by too many contemporary interpretations and conceptual motifs for Humble Ambitions' modest resources to support. And what might have seemed simple ingenuousness comes across as pretentious chaos.
Helena, the orphaned daughter of a respected physician, uses the skills learned from him to cure the King of France of a debilitating illness. As a reward, he instructs her to choose whatever husband she wants, and she names the man she's loved secretly since childhood--Bertram, the son of her guardian, the Countess of Rousillon. The startled spouse-to-be protests, citing his noble rank and her lowly station. When the king insists, Bertram reluctantly agrees, but announces that he will live apart from his bride until she can meet two challenges: she must gain possession of the ring he always wears, and she must get herself with child by him. Helena spreads reports of her own death, and follows her love to Italy incognito. There she enlists the aid of the sympathetic Diana, whom Bertram is courting, and the two devise a stratagem by which Bertram's demands are met. By then, however, he's come to realize the error of his snobbery and happily resigns himself to the wife who's won him fairly.
This fable, though rooted firmly in the world of folklore and fairy tales, requires a light touch to offset the bawdy, potentially sordid aspects of the plot. But unfortunately director Jill Giles mixes broad tragedy and comedy in equal amounts while emphasizing the young ladies' pluck, wit, and cleverness in a (ho-hum) "male-dominated society." This collegiate reading could be written off as mere immaturity, as could the uniformly young cast's difficulty in establishing characters, the distracting incidental music, and the breakneck pace, possibly engendered by Cafe Voltaire's policy of leasing its space in two-hour increments. But Giles has also cast women in two of the major male roles--the King and Parolles, a swaggering, social-climbing hypocrite. With a unigender cast such as Footsteps Theatre often features, women playing men quickly becomes simply another convention. But when the play is conventionally cast in all but a few cases, we're repeatedly forced to adjust, wasting time that might have been better spent exploring the characters.
What makes these cross-gender performances all the more jarring is how little the two actresses have mitigated their feminine mannerisms. Hilerre E. Kirsch's King resembles a put-upon nanny more than a leader accustomed to being obeyed, and Andrea Gall's Parolles is nothing like the "vile rascal" described--she's more like a stubborn little girl tagging along after her elder brothers, armed with a toy sword and squealing in adorable terror when hassled by the big boys.
The conventionally cast actors fare little better. Amy Moon Mathieu's Helena spends most of the play staring at the floor and declaring her unworthiness, giving rise to the suspicion that her attraction to Paul Makkos's piggish Bertram is motivated more by masochistic codependency than by healthy admiration. Laurie Flanigan's Diana displays a feisty proto-feminist frankness, as do Karol Spangler as her mother and Nina Lynn as her companion--so much so that their appraisal of the French troops arriving in town leads us to mistake them for a band of bawds. Only Tina Howard as the Countess is sufficiently adept at Shakespeare's verse and at exploring character to establish anything like a complete person.
It's unfortunate that the debut performance of a troupe with obvious talent should founder through a few misguided decisions. But humbler ambitions might make for better productions in the future.