Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
As the play opens, the Count of Rossillion has just died, leaving behind the grieving Countess and their son Bertram. Also present is Helena, orphaned daughter of a renowned healer, who had been taken into the bosom of the Count and Countess after her highly esteemed father died, and was like a daughter to them. Helena is deeply in love with Bertram, though he views her indifferently. When he departs to take his father's place at the King's court in Paris, Helena is bereft. Word reaches Rossillion that the King is gravely ill, and Helena, having learned healing arts at her father's knee, is permitted to go to Paris to try to cure him, and she does just that. As a reward, he allows her to select any man in the court as her husband. Of course, she chooses Bertram, who protests mightily, stating that the daughter of a healer is far beneath his high-born station. The King views Bertram's protest as defiance against his authority, and insists the wedding take place at once. Resolved to elude Helena, Bertram joins forces waging war in Italy without consummating their marriage. As he leaves, he proclaims that he will never bed Helena unless she can obtain the family heirloom ring he wears and be impregnated with his child. In other words, "Never!"
Heartbroken, Helena embarks on a pilgrimage to seek spiritual solace. Bertram, now in Florence, has no qualms about pursuing relations with local women, no matter the technicalities of his marital status, with his eye on a particular beauty, Diana. As fate (and Shakespeare) would have it, Bertram and Helena's paths cross, though it is not until the end of the play that Bertram realizes this, and by then the title All's Well That End's Well has proven to be true.
Without revealing the ending, for those who will make the trip to Winona to see this and other Great River Shakespeare Festival productions (and I recommend that you do), many commentators find the rapid turn of events in the play's closing scene to be jarring, a contrived finale that has not been earned. This is a major reason All's Well That End's Well has been considered a "problem play." But the director, has staged this conclusion in a thoughtful and poignant manner that adds authenticity to the resolution. In the artful hands of this company, it works beautifully. I was left felling satisfied that brighter days lay ahead for all, and that love has triumphed.
In addition to Barbour's adroit direction, which keeps the narrative clear and fluid, credit goes to Christopher Peltier as Bertram and Caroline Amos as Helena. Both actors project their feelings with conviction, bringing truth to tale that might otherwise feel contrived. Watching Amos mature as an actor over the past five festival seasons has been particularly rewarding. Peltier is terrific when trying to stay a step ahead of the trap his lies and deceits have set before him.
Melissa Maxwell, as the Countess of Rossillion, brings an essential emotional arc to this production, as she is first a grieving widow, then joyfully considers her adopted daughter as a daughter-in-law, then moved to anger at her own son for having wrong Helena, and descending to scorn when she realizes how terribly he has debased himself and his legacy, and finally dissolving into a burst of gratitude when, against all odds, he is redeemed. Thanks to Maxwell's stunning work, the depth and nature of emotions throughout the play can be measured through the Countess.
Christopher Gerson has for many years been one of the great joys of Great River seasons, and he does not disappoint here as Parolles, known to everyone but his longtime friend Bertram as a boaster, liar and scoundrel. Gerson plays the role with sublime comic sensibility, mining the humor as well as the pathos in this ridiculous man who wants the world to think him a hero without doing anything to remotely earn that status.
Benjamin Boucvalt, Alex Givens, Jonathan Contreras and Zach Curtis are swell as Bertram and Parolles' fellow officers, who trick the latter into revealing his mendacity to his one friend. Curtis also plays the King of France, believably ailing on his deathbed, than, once transformed by Helena's healing touch, a vibrant and forceful monarch, with a mind for both justice and mercy. Anique Clements brings out the strength in Diana, no more so than when defending the value of her virginity against Bertram's valuation of his ancestral ring, or when standing firmly up to the King when she raises charges against Bertram. Jonathan Gillard Daly, a former Great River mainstay, makes a welcome return as Lavatch, and aged friend of the late Count who has become doddering and sentimental, yet spot-on in his observations.
The simple setting designed by R. Eric Stone serves the production well, with most of the locations suggested by use of a moveable platform, a plush drape that rises and descends to create various arched passageways, and the evocative lighting, designed by Marissa Alejandro Diaz. A lattice-like arc rises stage right and across the proscenium, suggesting a spider's web, perhaps the web of deceit from which these characters must rise. Janice Benning Lacek has designed apt period costumes, and Matthew Tibbs' sound design provides music between scenes that convey the haunted tone of a gothic romance.
Having been aware of the criticisms levied against All's Well that Ends Well, I am pleased to have had my first encounter with the play by way of Great River Shakespeare Festival's well-wrought production, which finds its way through the minefield of its deficiencies to provide dramatically gripping, emotionally gratifying theater, while also giving full due to the Bard's humor. This is a great opportunity to see a seldom staged work by Shakespeare with its best foot forward.
Season 15 of the Great River Shakespeare Festival continues through August 5, 2018, at the Performing Arts Center of Winona State University, 450 Johnson Street, Winona MN. All's Well that Ends Well, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare in Love, and Venus in Fur play in rotation, with schedules changing weekly. Tickets for Mainstage productions: $25.00 - $49.00; for the Black Box: $25.00. Discount season passes for all four plays are available. For schedule of performances and other events, and for tickets call 507-474-7900 or visit GRSF.org.
Writer: William Shakespeare; Director: Rick Barbour; Scenic Design: R. Eric Stone; Lighting Design: Marissa Alejandro Diaz; Costume Design: Janice Benning Lacek; Sound Design: Matthew Tibbs; Props Supervisor: Connor M. McEvoy; Choreographer: Michael Fitzpatrick Text Coach: Bryan Hunt; Production Manager: Joseph Millett; Stage Manager: Violet Smith; Assistant Director: Alex Bezdeka; Assistant Stage Manager: Emma Anthony; Assistant Costume Designer: John Merritt; Assistant Sound Designer: Sidney McCarty.
Cast: Caroline Amos (Helena), Benjamin Boucvalt (First Lord Dumaine), Anique Clements (Diana), Jonathan Contreras (Priest); Zach Curtis (King of France/ First Soldier- Interpreter), Jonathan Gillard Daly (Lavatch), Michael Fitzpatrick (Lafew/ Duke of Florence), Leah Gabriel (Widow Capilet), Christopher Gerson (Parolles), Alex Givens (Second Lord Dumaine), Melissa Maxwell (Countess of Rossillion/Marianna), Christopher Peltier (Bertram).