Thursday, August 11, 2011

All's Well that ends, well, okay

Parolles (Fred Sullivan, Jr.) gets his comeuppance in All's Well that Ends Well.

The critics have been singing the praises of Commonwealth Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well, so I stopped by the Common last night to check it out - who knows, I thought to myself, maybe Steve Maler has finally come up with something.

Well, I didn't last through the whole thing, but I admit the reviewers are right on one count - this is probably the best I've seen Maler and company do. It's not great, but it's solid arena Shakespeare. And it's obvious why - for once Maler has by and large cast experienced stage veterans in the major roles rather than cable stars, and he has colored well within the lines of the interpretive consensus regarding All's Well. When you've got Karen MacDonald, Will LeBow, and Fred Sullivan, Jr. all on stage, trust me, the show will keep moving. And even the sound was a little better than usual.

Meanwhile Maler's direction, though inoffensive, is also rarely compelling. As usual, he has staged appropriate chunks of pageant to denote the play's themes, which move rather like placards across the stage. He knows from his reading, for instance, that All's Well is the most melancholic of the comedies, and shot through with images of death and decay. So he stages a funeral at the beginning, and usually lights the stage in blue. He doesn't actually know how to imbue the performances themselves with this interpretive slant; but he can communicate that he himself is aware of it. And, once this message has been received, most of our local critics put a "check!" in a little box on their mental scorecards.

Alas, that scorecard may not be as sophisticated as the critics themselves assume. I noted with amusement, for instance, that one local reviewer enthused that Larry Coen, "always a delight to watch, is doubly so when he's uttering that iambic pentameter." Now Coen is, indeed, often a delight to watch, but I don't think he has any of "that iambic pentameter" to say in All's Well; his character, Lavatch, speaks only in prose.

I'm aware, however, that such praise points up a special problem around critiquing Shakespeare on the Common: to be fair to Maler, he has to please that lady who can't tell blank verse from prose. (And his wealthy sponsors and donors are much the same - most of them have been 'educated' without really getting educated.) So it's worth noting that this production probably meets that populist standard - indeed it's chief virtue is simply that most of the cast makes this text intelligible. The language in All's Well may represent Shakespeare at his most obscure; it is expressly designed to suggest a decadent society transfixed by legalistic equivocation, and the Bard himself is intent on suggesting an equipoise of oppositions in almost every line.

The play opens, for instance, with a famous mouthful: "In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband." Shakespeare explicitly is equating birth and death here, but it's hard to parse that the very first time you hear it. Just btw, he closes with a similar equivalence, when the pregnant Helena is introduced with the line "One that's dead is quick" - in All's Well death itself is fecund. Probably the resonance of this strange, impacted theme sailed right over the heads of most of the folks on the Common - still, the actors made superficial sense of just about everything they said, however convoluted its expression - they spoke a bit slowly, but always clearly, and I felt that the audience was generally following the action, which is no small achievement.

But as an evocation of what's special about All's Well That Ends Well, you couldn't point to this version; it was solid, generic Shakespeare, but it had little of the haunting atmosphere All's Well should have, because there was little that was specific to the text about it. Part of the problem was that plays with subtle atmosphere don't lend themselves to arena stagings (imagine The Glass Menagerie in Fenway Park - that's roughly equivalent to trying to stage All's Well That Ends Well on the Common). But another central issue was that Kersti Bryan's competent Helena had little of the mystique that goes a long way toward excusing the plot's fairy-tale oddities (magic potions, bed tricks). Then again, nobody else was exactly right for his or her role, either; the great Karen MacDonald, for instance, is far too hearty for the frail Countess of Rossillion (who is generally seen as slowly failing over the course of the play), while Fred Sullivan, Jr., as the cowardly braggart Parolles, tended to bark his comic lines like a cross between Falstaff and Pistol, when what is essential about Parolles is his smallness. Meanwhile Larry Coen did manage to wring some laughs from Lavatch (Shakespeare's least funny clown), but failed to convey the jester's despairing temper (he's a hanger-on from the Countess's dead husband).  And even Will LeBow, though sonorous as ever, only brought the occasional interesting touch to the King of France.

Thus, I confess, my attention slowly drifted, and in the end I only made it about two thirds of the way through.  So perhaps the finale is fantastic - I just don't know (although I doubt it).  I confess I'm getting a bit bad that way - I bailed on Company One's 1001 last week, too.  But seriously, folks, I'm not getting any younger, and life, as they say, is short.  I certainly don't owe these people anything - in fact, I owe Company One and Steve Maler a bad turn or two.  Still, this time I have to admit that even if all doesn't end well with All's Well, it ends up pretty much okay.


  1. As we get ready for tonight going with family thanks for the review which will sharpen our viewing. For us Shakespeare is something of a challenge (sometimes boring) but did enjoy the recent engaging production of "A Comedy of Errors" at Boscobel on the Hudson. Additional comment from this oldster: too bad you younger folks can't stick it out during drama...maybe some movies. Are we now that impatient? Yes, you may be getting a "bit bad that way."

  2. Right. I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt this time, and assume you don't realize yet who you're talking to. But just for the record, I've stuck it out through at least half a dozen productions of "All's Well That Ends Well" prior to this one . . . in general I have no trouble at all getting through anything that is worthwhile, although the longest I've gone in a single seat for a single show was nine hours.

  3. Hi Thomas. I saw All's Well That End's Well this past Sunday, and in writing a post in my own blog figured you'd have something to say about it, and so you did. I had no other experience of All's Well, reading it or seeing it staged with which to compare my experience, but enjoyed it very throughly. The adverse weather did allow us a phenomenal spot yards from the stage and I also studied with Lebow as an undergrad, so those factors may have colored my experience. But I also came into it as a performer and my experience coupled with your review brought out a thought. You mention that the people involved guaranteed that the piece would move, and move it does, and the sense of forward momentum can't be underestimated in doing Shakespeare (IMHO). After all, the plays were meant as popular entertainment for the Elizabethans, full of blood, violence and lewd humor alongside the astounding poetry and use of language. An Elizabethan audience may have been comparably impatient to a modern audience, and there would have been myriad distractions within and outside the globe to draw their attention away from the play (I believe the theatre district corresponded to the red light district in London, for example). And this All's Well did deserve credit for it's sense of momentum. Then again, I disliked Actor's Shakespeare Project's carving down of Antony and Cleopatra (I thought it removed the scope and stakes to completely cut Pompei), but that play I did have a prior relationship with, having previously performed in it. Maybe that makes me a hypocrite, oh well. Anyway please continue doing what your doing, Boston needs contrary voices to survive artistically. Best, Mike.

  4. Well, we can agree that the production was well-spoken and had forward momentum - which is a genuine accomplishment in a text of this complexity. And whether the subtleties of a play like "All's Well That Ends Well" can be expected to come over in a setting like the Common will always be debatable. By the way, Mike's full review can be found at: