To paraphrase Bill Clinton, “It depends on what your definition of ‘well’ is.” All’s Well That Ends Well at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (CSC) ends up neatly with loose threads tidied away. That’s one kind of ending “well,” even when the neatness blindsides reason.
It ends with revelations, reconciliations and a romantic coupling that is well-meaning but logic-defying. That’s hardly ending “well.”
Heroine Helena is a moon-eyed maiden in love above her station. She’s also skillful, willful, driven and manipulative. These contradictions are so fetchingly etched and explicated by Kelly Mengelkoch (pictured) that sweet Helena deserves to end up with a better fate than the scruffy Bertram, credibly performed on opening night (script in hand) by stage manager Justin McCombs in a last-minute substitution. Actor that he is, McCombs’ subbing did minimal damage. (Ailing Christopher Guthrie will resume the role soon.)
All’s Well is a comedy (alleged), so the production, set and costumed during World War I ends with smiles all around as most (but not all) of the characters receive some (but not all) of their just desserts. This ending “well” might well be a sending up.
The remarkable thing is how director Brian Isaac Phillips and his 17-member cast take a troublesome patchwork script full of dislikeable people and dubious motivations — the great Shakespearean scholar Harold Bloom calls it “rancid” — and transform it into a rich, more cohesive, more satisfying entertainment experience ... more than it has any right to be.
Shakespeare lifted his core story from 14th-century poet Boccaccio. A kindly countess (Sherman Fracher) mourns her late husband and the departure of her son, now Count Bertram. He is bidden to Paris, to the court of the French king (Jim Hopkins), who is dying. Helena, the orphaned daughter of a noted physician and now a ward of the countess, loves Bertram but, being common born, has no hope of being with him. However, she was bequeathed a curative drug by her father that might help the king, so she also heads for Paris.
The cure works. The grateful king ennobles Helena and offers her any husband she wants. She chooses Bertram. He barely knows her and rejects her cruelly. The king shotguns a wedding.
Immature Bertram runs off to the wars in Italy after telling Helena that she can have him only if she can get a ring from his finger and get herself pregnant by him. In Italy a clever widow (Amy Warner) and her even more clever daughter (Sara Clark) help Helena trick Bertram and meet his conditions, thereby engendering all those happy smiles at the curtain.
Mixed in are a few too many poignant WWI songs, some military posturing and the beautifully comic unmasking of Bertram’s cowardly sidekick, Parolles, played with sly, knowing vigor by Matt Johnson. There’s strong support from Buz Davis (as a counselor), Josh Stamoolis (as shambling clown Lavatch) and Rob Jansen and Kristopher Stoker as the officers who dupe Parolles.
The set is a little too specifically a railroad station. The lighting is a little dim for comedy. Phillips has cut running time down to 70 minutes per act. Less Lavatch and fewer circumlocutions in the final scene would make it even better.
But the evening’s truest delights are the four strong women who, as in no other play by Shakespeare, dominate the action. The splendors of Mengelkoch I’ve mentioned. Fracher makes Shakespeare’s best-ever portrait of an older woman richer than the words. Warner and Clark, likewise, go intuitively beyond the few words they’re given.
These women are the main reasons that All’s Well ends up so very well indeed.
ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through Nov. 15. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.