By William Shakespeare; Directed by Emily Lyon
Produced by Hedgepig Ensemble Theatre
Off Off Broadway, Classic
Runs through 12.15.18
Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street
by Dan Rubins on 12.11.18
Basil Rodericks and Sara Hymes (Andy Baldeschwiler in background) in All's Well That Ends Well. Photo by Allison Stock.
BOTTOM LINE: A rare production of Shakespeare's glorious, under-appreciated dark comedy.
I used to say that All’s Well That Ends Well was my guilty-pleasure favorite Shakespeare play, but now I’ll just admit it: All’s Well That Ends Well is my favorite Shakespeare play, no qualifier needed. I adore All’s Well’s whip-smart humor, its abundance of psychologically rich moments that feel impossibly modern, its potently uneasy ending, and, most of all, its Rubik’s Cube of a heroine, Helena.
The recently orphaned daughter of a famed physician, Helena (Sara Hymes) mourns first and foremost for her unrequited crush Bertram, the Count of Roussillon (Martin Lewis), who’s just taken off to serve in the court of the dying King of France (Basil Rodericks). With her late father’s medicinal leftovers in hand, Helena hightails it to Paris to cure the King in exchange for marrying the courtier of her choosing. That’s Bertram, of course, who, once forcibly wed, immediately flees to the battlefield before the marriage can be consummated, swearing never to return to Helena unless she becomes pregnant with his child, which is, obviously, impossible. Helena’s unswayed, though, because she’s indefatigable and a tad insane, and she wins Bertram back via one of Shakespeare’s infamous bed tricks: when Bertram goes to sleep with Diana (Kariana Sanchez), the young Italian woman he’s been trying to woo, it’s Helena in the dark there instead.
It’s an extraordinary (some say nutso), enigmatic (some say icky) grown-up fairy tale, but as an All’s Well super-fan, I jump at any chance to see a production of this under-loved work. Hedgepig Ensemble Theatre’s small-scale production at the Gene Frankel receives a sturdy, accessible staging by director Emily Lyon, but it often feels like a tentative interpretation, one that’s not quite willing to probe beneath the surface of the play to explore the murky uncertainties that make the work so hypnotizing.
Lyon’s cast handles the text adroitly, especially Martin Lewis as the piquantly unfeeling Bertram, an immature soldier who just wants to pal around and play the field, and Desiree Baxter as the Countess of Rousillion, Bertram’s doting mother, who wants Helena to succeed. Sara Hymes often projects Helena’s strength, but it’s sometimes hard to tell what she’s thinking and feeling in a role that requires an actor to make myriad choices about why Helena’s doing what she’s doing and how many steps ahead of her unfolding plot she really is. Lyon’s direction also tends to miss out on Shakespeare’s rawer comedy, especially in the subplot involving Gregory Jon Phelps’s Parolles, the cowardly miscreant soldier who’s usually treated as a self-involved buffoon but here just comes off as a lewd bro.
Still, there are some clever staging moments that play up the production’s modern dress: Bertram brings a boombox-bearing buddy with him to win over Diana, and crude Parolles tries to light his cigarette on an altar candle atop a coffin. In the scene where the King offers Helena a lineup of potential grooms to choose from, she thoughtfully surveys the front row of the audience. There’s also a surprisingly elaborate scenic maneuver amidst Anna Driftmier’s intimate grey-tiled set, a color scheme that suggests the ambivalence of the play’s grey areas more adeptly than the production does overall.
There was also an inspiring pre-show panel that focused on the theme of women supporting women, where Hedgepig’s artistic director Mary Candler specifically urged the audience to focus on that motif in the second half of the play. What Candler refers to is the eagerness of a Florentine mother and daughter (sisters, in this production) who help Helena orchestrate her bed trick. The thing is, this pretty clearly isn’t a narrative of women supporting women, at least not in the cut-and-dry way this production would assert. Helena extravagantly pays for the women’s services: “Take this purse of gold,/And let me buy your friendly help thus far,” she tells the Widow (a boisterous Elizabeth C. J. Roberts), offering to shell out more if things go according to plan, and then throwing in a three-thousand-crown dowry to Diana when she senses hesitation. This isn’t a utopian sisterhood by any means; the Widow and Helena take advantage of one another’s relative poverty and wealth to get what they want.
That’s not really a make-or-break misreading on its own—I only fixate on it because the program notes echo the pre-show panel and frame it as one of the play’s central contemporary draws—but it is indicative of a general inclination, one that goes beyond Hedgepig’s production, of trying to make Helena and her virtuosic self-determination fit within the nearest box. This isn’t called a problem play for nothing—productions penetrate All’s Well’s moral labyrinth more deeply when they put their efforts into posing those problems thoughtfully and clearly for the audience to wrestle with, rather than trying to “solve” them.
Isn’t it more interesting that this is a play in which women can be simultaneously virtuous and mercenary (as in the chaste Diana’s case)? Should any production really gloss over or uncomplicate the ethics of Helena’s bed trick, even if Bertram’s a super-jerk? (If you’re setting a Shakespeare play in modern times, you really also have to contend with the modern parameters of consent.) And, most fundamentally, even if we marvel at Helena’s intellectual achievement in outwitting Bertram, shouldn’t we also wonder, along with Helena herself, whether it’s all been worth it? All of this has been for a guy who’s clearly not interested, right?
Hedgepig’s urge to celebrate Helena’s autonomy as an unqualified triumph makes a lot of sense. Yes, of all Shakespeare’s plays, it’s the easiest and best candidate to frame as a feminist play. But it should be possible to embrace what’s most empowering about Helena’s journey in All’s Well That Ends Well without losing sight of what’s most complex.
(All's Well That Ends Well plays at the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street, through December 15, 2018. The running time is 2 hours, 20 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Wednesdays through Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8. Tickets are $25 ($10 for students) and are available at genefrankeltheatre.com. For more information visit hedgepigensemble.org.)
All's Well That Ends Well is by William Shakespeare. Directed by Emily Lyon. Set Design by Anna Driftmier. Lighting Design by Charlotte McPherson. Sound Design by Carsen Joenk. Costume Design by Jamie Gross. Stage Manager is Jessica Fornear.
The cast is Andy Baldeschwiler, Desiree Baxter, Sara Hymes, Martin Lewis, Jory Murphy, Gregory Jon Phelps, Elizabeth C. J. Roberts, Basil Rodericks, Kariana Sanchez, and Thomas Valdez.