Friday, July 11, 2008

Boy Gets Girl, Boy Doesn't Deserve Her : All's Well That Ends Well

(A reflection on the preview performance of ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL at the Georgia Shakespeare Festival in Atlanta.)

Suppose, once upon a time, there were a beautiful, clever, generous, and kind girl named Helena, secretly in love with the son of the Countess whom she serves. Suppose she makes a bargain with the King of France, sick unto death: If she cures the king's disease, she marries the man of her choice; otherwise, she dies. Suppose she works a miracle, restoring him to youthful vigor. He lines up all the eligible young men in the court for her, and last in line is the young Count whom she adores. She gently teases the men, who are all anxious to have her, before, hesitantly, and modestly, she says to her love Bertram, "I dare not say I choose you, but I do give myself." What happens next?

It's the strangest moment in a Shakespeare play that I can think of, and I'm sure it's the reason why I've only seen two productions of this play -- compared to more than a dozen productions each of TWELFTH NIGHT, AS YOU LIKE IT, and MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. Not only does Bertram reject her, to the shock of everyone in court and in the audience, but, he does worse. He takes her hand when commanded to disregard her social class (the King giving a very democratic speech about true worth stemming from actions, not from birth), then rejects her in private. He mocks her: When you can get the ring off my finger, and bear me my own child, then will I be your husband. Then he betrays the King by joining the enemy's army. The girl Helena spends the rest of the play pursuing him, and we're all asking ourselves, "Why?"

Directors have to pull out all their tricks to make this one work. The only other production I've seen (Alabama Shakespeare Festival, ca. 1985) framed the play with a spot of light on a young couple in a slow waltz, obviously enthralled with each other. Only at the end do we recognize them as Helena and Bertram, and, remembering the way the play started, we think, "Okay, he's a jerk, but it's inevitable that he'll learn to appreciate her." This one begins the play with tableaus from the celebratory ending, and a balletic "dumbshow" that anticipates key elements of the story: Helena's selection of Bertram, the use of blindfolds (Bertram is literally in the dark at a key plot turn, and a subplot involves blindfolding the character Parolles), her rejection, and the long road to reconciliation -- symbolized by laying a long white cloth flat on the stage and having Helena advance "uphill" along the cloth, one laborious step at a time. The director borrows images from this dumbshow throughout the play to remind us of the inevitable ending -- when Helena and Bertram again stand at opposite ends of that white cloth, and this time, they come together joyfully.

Still, what's wrong with this boy? In the program, the director asks what this play would be, if it were focused on the boy. The director's intriguing answer is that this is a sort of "Labors of Hercules" or "Adventures of Theseus," in which a hero, having somehow brought dishonor to himself, goes through experiences that make him a man. With that in mind, the director did a lot of good. He cast as Bertram an actor smaller than everyone else in the cast except Helena and the jester, and the actor projected the insecurity of an eighth grade boy in a grown-up situation, awkward with formal gestures, always a little isolated, eyes constantly checking to see what kind of impression he's making. Embracing his mother as he leaves to join the King's court, his formal embrace becomes a little boy's hug. This emphasis fits with the script, as Bertram follows a braggart soldier the way a young teen might be awed by an eighteen-year-old jackass.

So it's about the girl who grows up before the boy does, and then she gets him when he's really ready. Okay: That ends well enough for me.

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