All’s Well That Ends Well. Erm… not exactly. But therein lies the beauty of one of two of the Bard’s “problem plays” showing in rep at The Public’s Shakespeare in the Park series at Delacorte Theater in Central Park.
This was my first time seeing a production of AWTEW in its entirety, having read and worked on monologues and scenes from the play. Prior to this production, I thought of Bertram, the romantic lead played by Andre Holland, as a complete, utter jerk. However, my perception was mitigated by the way this production brings out sympathetic elements of the character from the text, including the fact that he understandably rebels against being forced to marry someone he doesn’t love and explains later in the play that he was interested in someone else at the time the undesirable “arrangement” was made. These revelations don’t let him off the hook completely, but I cut him some slack.
Then there’s the play’s protagonist, the woman scorned, Helena, played masterfully by Annie Parisse, who orchestrates a bait-and-switch to get her reluctant husband to sleep with and impregnate her in order to keep him. (Juicy, right? If this plot sounds like something from a popular modern-day TV series or the like, hang on – I’m getting to that… Nothing new under the sun.) She is rightfully hailed as virtuous, smart, and beautiful. Along with these, to her credit, she is also very shrewd. But what the hell does she want with a man who does not want to marry her and runs off to war rather than knowingly sleep with her? Let alone with going through the trouble of faking her death and tricking him into consummation.
An argument could be made that such a bewildered perspective is too colored by a 21st century sensibility – that, perhaps, she is motivated by something(s) other than love (i.e. societal constraints on women that encourage desperate measures). It could certainly be played that way and, whether set in the Renaissance or a later period (as it is in this production), would be an apt “mirror to nature.” However the interpretation manifests in performance, moral and circumstantial ambiguity are what make AWTEW so good – both the play itself and the Public’s production. At the Delacorte, the play, including the ending, is staged in a manner that appropriately casts doubt on the title’s affirmation. If AWTEW were a 21st century rom-com-dram, it would probably be Oscar-worthy because of its “problems.” “Nature” – real life – is untidy. Motives for certain actions can be muddy at best or silly at worst (or the other way round?). At times, we pine for folks who are unavailable (the elusive “bad boy,” for instance) and choose, fight for, and sometimes win things that aren’t right or otherwise good for us.
It’s usually difficult for me to pick a favorite Shakespeare play when asked. However, while I remain conflicted about Helena as a “heroine” – or, perhaps, because of the problematic designation – I think that AWTEW is my (new?) favorite, thanks to the Public’s production. Indeed, this not-to-be-missed “fairytale for grown-ups,” as it described on the Shakespeare in the Park website, skillfully poses “happily ever after” as a question. (I hope I don’t make it sound like a downer, by the way, it’s also very funny.)
All’s Well That Ends Well is playing in rep with Measure for Measure until July 30th.
Image credit: nymag.com