September 11, 2013 § 1 Comment
Shakespeare’s Most Underrated Comedy
Marin Shakespeare Company’s excellent production of All’s Well that Ends Well, directed by Robert Currier, convinces me again of the virtues of the play – the most underrated in the canon.
The agenda of this blog is to think about Shakespeare in performance, but simultaneously to explore the challenges of performing Shakespeare. As with diving competitions, it is not just the execution that counts, but also the degree of difficulty! All’s Well is both the best executed and the most difficult of Marin’s three-play repertoire this summer.
For my purposes, it is a terrific example of a show that presents very specific challenges, and as a consequence of those difficulties is rarely performed.
Who Rules the World? Girls!
The first challenge is simply lack of familiarity: The play has long been neglected in part because the best roles are for women. The protagonist is the ingénue, Helen, and the other role for which the play is known is the Countess Roussillon – “the most beautiful old woman’s part every written,” according to Shaw. The great actor-managers of the 18th and 19th centuries saw no opportunities in the play for themselves, so it was not until the 20th century that it began to find its place in the repertoire.
The tone of the play can be very challenging, as well. The play is obviously structured as a comedy, but like many Shakespeare comedies from his middle period, (Measure for Measure, Merchant of Venice, Troilus and Cressida) it is not exactly funny. As the Marin production demonstrates, however, when you get it right the play is magical.
Anticipating the Romances
The plot of the play is, like those of the Romances, a borderline fairy tale. Helen is the orphaned daughter of a great physician. She is now a ward of the recently widowed Countess of Roussillon. She loves the Countess’ son, Bertram, the new Count, but the difference in their social stature is too great for any hope of a match.
With the Countess’ encouragement Helen follows Bertram to the court of the King of France, where the king is slowly dying of a mysterious ailment that is draining his vitality. (For those unfamiliar with Elizabethan euphemisms, the diagnosis of his “fistula” – if recognized at all – is confusing. How can this be put delicately? In modern terms he needs the attention of a urologist, not a proctologist. It is not coincidental that only a fair, young virgin can cure him.)
When the king recovers his health, he is so grateful to Helen that he grants her the choice of any man in the realm as a husband. She selects Bertram, but for the first time in this fairy tale world we are asked to confront a reality. Bertram is not consulted in this match. He is forced to marry her although he openly says he does not love her and is not ready to be married.
Bertram flees without consummating the marriage, and leaves Helen a set of “impossible” conditions for their reconciliation. As in all folklore, the rest of the play is spent with Helen finding ways, through pluck and intelligence, to meet these bizarre requirements and finally win her husband’s love.
When Youth Isn’t Wasted on the Young
In performance both lead characters often come off as unsympathetic. Helen seems dense while Bertram is a jerk. The riskiest move Currier made toward realizing his vision of this play was casting newcomers Carla Pauli as Helena and Adam Magill as Bertram. Some of company’s casting stretches were not so successful in other shows this summer, but these two delivered affecting, heartfelt and convincingly youthful performances that overcame the most common problems encountered in performance.
Helen’s initial choice of Bertram usually seems self-deluding, and her dedication to him even after he has abandoned her can seem pointlessly masochistic. Pauli is so young, and plays the character as so humble, that both actions seem plausible. Interestingly, the play is also exceedingly frank about the character’s understanding of, and interest in, sexuality. She is, after all, a doctor’s daughter. For example, she discusses her virginity almost dispassionately, as something she is more than ready to lose, but only on her own terms. Victorians were appalled at this openness, but in Pauli’s case it made her a very convincing teenager.
Bertram is an even bigger challenge. His rejection of Helen is often played as pure snobbery and even when not intended he often comes across as irredeemably selfish. That is, at least partially, a result of casting actors well into their late twenties or early thirties in the role. (The play does not tell us exactly how old Bertram is, but Currier interprets the description of him as too young to be allowed to go to war – in an era where 16 and 17 year old nobles were often sent off to gain some experience – as meaning that he could still be in his mid-teens.) Magill convincingly parlays his youth into the impression of one more sinned against than sinning- after all, as Jonathan Bate points out in the new RSC Shakespeare, we feel very differently about Shakespeare’s female characters forced into early marriages against their wills than critics have traditionally treated Bertram.
The tall, angular Magill also bears a striking resemblance to the stunning Jessica Powell who plays his mother. She has been a stalwart of the summer, playing roles in all three productions, but it is here that she really shines as the loving, but torn, Countess. Her strong-willed gravity lends Magill’s Bertram extra integrity, even when they find themselves at odds. He seems very much her son.
Although often thought of a large show, Marin has edited it so that it is performed by just nine actors. The cast is without a weak link. Scott Coopwood is a charismatic Lafeu, the nobleman who is the closest thing to a father figure to both Bertram and Helen. He also effortlessly absorbs lines and functions traditionally performed by minor characters, allowing the cast to be streamlined.
James Hiser is very funny as the braggart soldier, Parolles, whose cowardice may account not only for his absence from battle but his otherwise unexplainable hostility to sex. (He counsels Bertram to flee his marriage bed, and is later discovered to have intended to subvert an assignation Bertram pursues with a local girl, Diana.) It is when the character is hoodwinked by his fellow soldiers and his cowardice laid bare that Hiser is best. Parolles’ realization that he has lost his honor, but has to live with his disgrace forever, was heartbreaking.
Speaking of that local girl, Diana, – the character was superbly played by Luisa Fransconi, who was so delightful in Livermore Shakespeare’s The Liar earlier in the summer. Heather Cherry played her bombshell mother with equal zest.
Jack Powell played the King of France broadly, literally doing a jig when cured of his illness. He became most believable and affecting late in the play when he was paired with his real life wife, Jessica – playing the Countess – trying to sort out the confusions of the script.
The production was set in 1962, which I began thinking didn’t really work and came to believe didn’t really matter – except in the case of the clown, Lavatch, played by Lucas McClure. Lavatch is very much in the mold of Twelfth Night‘s Feste, only lascivious. The only thing seemingly grounded in the real world of 1962 was McClure’s wonderful portrayal of Lavatch as a second-rate folk singer. He was hilarious as a combination jester/doorman who was tripping ahead to the summer of love half a decade before anybody else.
Marin uses a single unit set by Shannon Walsh for all three productions, and it is probably too much to ask that it work equally well as a Spanish Castle for the Spanish Tragedy, a Southwestern town for the adaptation of Comedy of Errors set in west Texas, and as Paris, Florence, and Rousillion in this show. The truth is, for this show it doesn’t work. The Rothko and Mondrian hanging on the Mission-style walls just seemed ridiculous. Eventually, however, one settles into the play by treating the background as neutral. It is certainly no weirder than the Tudor-style Elizabethan playhouse of Shakespeare’s time, the reality of which one was to ignore.
The lack of realistic specificity about 1962 did not harm the performance much, however, because its timeless folktale nature must be brought to the fore anyway. That, Currier did brilliantly, especially in the wonderful moment in which the King is cured, ironically accompanied by Moog music and pre-disco lighting effects.
The program and a pre-show talk hinted as a surprise ending, but what emerged was actually an extremely logical non-ending. All may be well that ends well, but in this case we don’t really know what will happen after the curtain falls. We are left to imagine the speed of Bertram’s maturing, and the depth of his repentance, and maybe even the sincerity of his appreciation for Helen. Currier’s Lady-or-the-Tiger finish felt neither like a surprise nor a cop-out, but an entirely Shakespearean moment in which we must piece out their imperfections with our minds.