Reviewer, Catherine Siggins
"All's Well That Ends Well"
Theatricum Botanicum, Topanga Canyon
So let me ask you, what should an educated young woman do when she falls madly in love but is rejected, by the object of her affection, for being of a different class and beneath him? The correct answer is kick him to the curb. However, that would make for a very short play, so Shakespeare's heroine, Helena (much like Helena in Midsummer's) obsessively sets out to win a rather unworthy man by risking death, faking her demise, and setting a honey trap to bed her unwilling husband, proving the adage "All cats look grey in the dark". Sounds fun right?!
To celebrate Shakespeare's 450th birthday, Theatricum Botanicum Theatre company is staging "All's We'll That Ends Well" in their All-Shakespeare Repertory Season. Helena, daughter of a famous doctor, as fallen for her guardian's son, Bertram, the son of the Countess of Rousillon, in whose court she had lived with her father. Bertram is leaving for Paris to attend the king, so heartbroken Helen hatches a plan to save the life of the king in return for being allowed to marry any man at court. When she saves the king, she asks for Bertram's hand, but Bertram is having none of it. He is young, wants his freedom to choose who he shall marry, and to assert his manhood, and he refuses telling her she is inferior in birth. He will only be her husband the day she gets his family ring from him and when she becomes pregnant with his child, a challenge indeed when your husband hates you. To escape his fate, and the kings wrath, Bertram runs away to fight for the Duke of Florence, aided and abetted by the conceited popinjay Parolles, and poor Helena is left abandoned, and feeling she will be the reason for his death. She decides to leave France in the hope Bertram will return to his home. On her travels her path crosses that of Bertram, who she hears is trying to seduce a young Florentine maid, Diana. With the help of Diana and her mother, they trick Bertram, so she can obtain his ring and consummate the marriage. That being done she returns to France, to a court that believes her dead, just in time to save Bertram who has been accused of her death.
Described as one of his problem plays, All's Well cannot be easily classified as either comedy or tragedy. Based on Boccaccio's Decameron, a collection of love stories, it also has elements of a Morality play of the 15th century: the main protagonist's inherent weakness are assaulted and tested by outside forces, the supporting characters represent moral qualities, the virtues and vices, or abstractions such as death and youth. This conflict between age and youth is present in this play, an ailing king, an elderly countess and advisor, all virtuous and handing out wisdom to the younger characters, whose values are as fickle as their fashions fleeting. Deception, pretense versus truth, also a component of the morality play, is present in this play. A vice character will expose his wickedness to the audience, as Parolles does when he pretends to go in search for the drum.
Gender roles, class structure, male versus female sexuality and values are all examined. The main protagonist is a woman who defies gender conventions. The male lead is forced to marry, as is usual for daughters. The play attacks the belief that wealth and upper class status are more valuable then strength of character and honor, challenging the values of contemporary audiences in today's world of an ever expanding wealth gap, and appearance and celebrity obsessed consumer culture. "Good alone is good without a name", or these days a Twitter account.
The whole cast gives fine performance. Willow Geer plays Helena with a charming mixture of girlish enthusiasm and heartfelt determination. Max Lawrence's foot stomping spoiled man-child stops Bertram from being contemptibly cruel, allowing us to believe he may find redemption. Earnestine Phillips exudes warmth, playfulness, and maternal strength as the Countess Rousillon. Her scenes with the clown, LaVatch, are a treat, full of nudge nudge wink wink moments. Alan Blumenfeld is wickedly saucy as Lavatch, his comedic timing and use of song very entertaining. As wise old courtier Lefeu, Melora Marshall is a masterclass in physical transformation.
Adding another layer to the kings words "Our bloods of colour, weight, and the heat pour'd all together, would quite confound distinction", directors Ellen Geer & Christopher W. Jones have chosen to cast the aristocrats with black of colour. They have used the cast and space to maximum effect in his classical production, dovetailing the scenes smoothly, without breaking the flow of the action. As one scenes draws to a close, so through the trees you can see the other cast approach, enter and exit from out of the trees or up through the seating, one scene dissolves into the next, holding the energy.
LA Weekly we're not wrong to vote this theatre "Best Outdoor Theatre Space". As dusk falls in the canyon, you sit beneath the boughs of trees, serenaded by the song of crickets. Ever so often a bat will dive bomb the wide wooden stage before disappearing into the wooded slopes surrounding it. One is allowed to fantasize they are the steeds of fairies. Truer words were never spoken to describe the end of my stressful hectic weekend as I made my drive home, feeling All's Well That Ends Well.