All's Well That Ends Well
Director: Jim Helsinger
Costume Designer: Kristina Tollefson
Scenic Designer: Bob Phillips
Lighting Designer: Bert Scott
Sound Designer: Matthew Given
By Elizabeth Maupin
When an intrepid young woman named Helena sets off on a daunting journey, nobody in the audience at Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s All’s Well That Ends Well can have any doubt who she’s supposed to be.
That’s because she’s dressed in classic Disney convention (in a dirndl and an apron, with a kerchief on her head). She already has danced with a broom. And she’s outfitted for her trip with a basket and a red, hooded cape.
It’s fairy-tale time at Orlando Shakespeare, where director Jim Helsinger has taken a fanciful approach to All’s Well That Ends Well, a seldom-performed comedy that comes across as much more accessible — and a lot more fun — than its reputation suggests. The funny thing is that all the fairy-tale references, as comical as they are, seem like icing on a cake that’s pretty yummy all by itself.
Helsinger and associate director Thomas Ouellette deliver both the giddiness and the underlying darkness in Shakespeare’s tale of a young woman who goes to great lengths to get a young man who doesn’t deserve her until the end. And it’s that young man, a count named Bertram, who has proved problematic to centuries of All’s Well audiences. Helena, a servant to his mother, loves him madly, but Bertram scorns her. Only if you understand what actor Stafford Clark-Price makes abundantly clear — that the callow Bertram has some growing up to do — can you cheer on Helena’s quest.
At Orlando Shakes, it helps that Helena is played by Marni Penning, who was Beatrice in last season’s Much Ado About Nothing and Portia in The Merchant of Venice and is now also Ophelia in Hamlet. Penning is a wonderfully grounded actress, and if a character she plays wants to win a heartless young man, well, she probably knows what she’s doing.
In fact, the joy that comes from this production comes from a raft of such vivid characters — most as grounded as Penning’s Helena, but a couple in way over their heads. Anne Hering makes a kind and worldly-wise countess, and Johnny Lee Davenport is just as likable as her friend, the wise old Lafeu. Steve Hendrickson brings both fire and glee to the King of France, while Avery Clark and Walter Kmiec make strong impressions in the smallish roles of two playful lords.
Brandon Roberts’ Lavatche fills the role of the Shakespearean jester, all wit and wordplay. And Eric Zivot’s Parolles is the Shakespearean comic villain — this one as foolish and vainglorious as the Malvolio Zivot played in 2005, but with even more bows and ribbons than Malvolio could dream possible. (The whimsical costumes are by Kristina Tollefson.)
Helsinger and his crew have added plenty more laughs to a play that already rests on a couple of typically Shakespearean comic deceptions. I especially liked the delicious expectation of din every time Parolles makes an appearance, even before he himself points out that “every braggart shall be found an ass.”
But it’s the steadfast love and the courage of young Helena that puts her in league with some of Shakespeare’s most stalwart heroines — and that gives All’s Well That Ends Well the depth and resonance to live on.