Shakespeare on the Green opens their 23rd season with “All’s Well That Ends Well” at the Greenfield Lake Amphitheatre. Believed to have be written in 1604 or ‘05, “All’s Well” was not a big commercial hit in Shakespeare’s day—nor is it frequently performed these days. Actually, I wasn’t certain I was ever going to see it live onstage in my lifetime.
Not as well known as “Romeo & Juliet” or “Hamlet,” “All’s Well That Ends Well” follows the exploits of Helena (Tamica Katzmann), the young ward of the Countess of Rousillon (Teresa Lambe), who is a woman beyond her time. Helena’s deceased father was a well-known doctor, and her meager inheritance included his store of remedies. When the object of her affection, Betram the Young Count of Rousillon (Matt Carter), goes to Paris to attend to the ailing French king, Helena contrives to follow him (as she would to the ends of the earth, if necessary).
Katzmann’s rendition of the determined, Helena shows us a young woman who hides her beauty behind her intelligence. Though she is smarter than most expect her to be, she still plays to their expectations of her slightly ditziness. She really takes Helena in a wonderful direction: bringing forth her sweetness but also making others’ expectations of her their own downfall.
Carter’s Bertram is selfish and self-satisfied, young, immature and rash. Frankly, by intermission I was ready for someone to run him through with a sword. But Helena still wants him. Sigh.
Then there is the problem of his sidekick: Parolles (Zeb Mims). Parolles is a nod to Falstaff, possibly one of the Bard’s most well-known clowns. Unfortunately, Mr. Shakespeare killed him off in 1599 when he wrote “Henry V.” Consequently, we have Parolles, for all the world—in my mind at least—Falstaff’s abandoned brother who lives in France. He is loud, coarse, glutinous, dishonest, and weak of character. Mims tackles him head-on and revels in the opportunity to be as brash and brazen as Parolles demands. He and director Robb Mann have taken the physical comedy to a side-splittingly funny level, throw in Mims natural gift for rhythm and his disrupted cadence, and it is hard to keep a straight face with him onstage. Just like the character that inspired him, he is dangerous and leaves a wake of destruction behind him.
Helena cures the king (Jeff Turner) of his illness. In exchange he gives her the hand in marriage of any man she pleases. She chooses Bertram, who thinks he can do way better and is completely awful to her. He flees the countryand lands in Florence to fight as a mercenary for the duke. Quincy Rife plays the Duke of Florence as a cross between Brando in “The Godfather” and Steve Martin in “My Blue Heaven.” She was a crowd favorite with her sniffing, preening and gesturing. Betram sets about trying to seduce a young woman named Diana Capulet (Elyse Rodriguez). Here, again, our Bard played out his followers with a nice nod to the Goddess of Chastity and to the family of one of his other star characters, Juliet. Like her namesake, Diana guards her chastity, but she does enjoy the attention of Bertram. Together, with her mother (Arianna Tysinger) and Helena, the three hatch a plot to catch Bertram for Helena for all time—as he is supposed to be. Rodriguez frolics in her duplicitous role. She is clearly thrilled at the idea of entrapping this malicious, selfish misogynist at his own game. As bait she is pretty, yet, again, too smart for the way women of the time were usually portrayed.
In his director’s note, Mann points out that the show has been tightened from approximately four hours to two. There are some parts (especially in the second half, once Helena catches up with Betram in Florence) that I missed and would have deepened the context for the show. But modern audiences expect a slimmer show, and Shakespeare’s work can be convoluted if left to run its full course. The cuts are certainly within the spirit of the work. Besides the humor, twists and turns of life, Mann and his cast have done an excellent job preserving Shakespeare’s recognition of the intelligence, cunning and resourcefulness of women. Indeed, most of his life was spent as a subject of Queen Elizabeth I, who was then arguably the most powerful woman on earth. Though this show was written during James I’s reign, surely, there were examples enough in the Bard’s life of women to create the roles of the Countess Rousillon, Helena, Diana, and her mother.
Notice that this is a show heavy with female characters. From the beginning with the countess, we know that, though they are ordinary women, they represent extra ordinary reserves of strength. Countess is a wonderful example: She loves her son, but is now in trying to steer a boy who actually is her legal protector. Imagine having Justin Beiber in charge of your finances. Is that terrifying or what? That’s exactly what Lambe’s countess must contend with, and she does her best guide, wheedling and admonishing.
Though there are many roles for beautiful young women in Shakespeare’s work, there are not many that show off the craft and development of mature actresses. Countess is a wonderful role for a woman who has grown into herself to play (including the famed Dame Dentch). Lambe also gets to play straight woman to many of the jokes in the show—especially with her over-the-top servant (Jackson Cole). Perhaps Cole’s most engaging moments are when he is interrogating Parolles in the mock trial of the second half.
Mann has chosen to use a classical set: a large door at the back (like the Globe or the Greeks), and the only real set pieces that move are a few chairs and a large table built by Murphy Turner. It transforms into a bed, a throne, different houses, and a military barracks. It is cleverly done and visually quite charming.
“This is a nice annual ritual we have isn’t it?” Jock asked me at intermission. The frogs were croaking, the sun had just set but not before painting a Bob Ross painting on Greenfield Lake and its surroundings. I handed him a drink from our picnic bag and agreed: There are few things I look forward to as much as Shakespeare on the Green. Not only are we lucky to have this every year, we are even more lucky to have a group that produces shows that we might not otherwise get to see. Shakespeare’s greatest hits will always be crowd pleasers, but it is a truly wonderful opportunity to see the lesser-known works onstage—to see life breathed into them and to be part of their continued gifts to the human experience.
All’s Well That Ends Well
Greenfield Lake Amphitheater
1941 Amphitheater Drive
Fri.-Sun., through 6/21 Thurs.-Sun., 6/25-28, 6:30 p.m.
Tickets: Free (donations encouraged)