In times of strife, sometimes we find illumination in complexity and melancholy. To that end, director Dan Hodge at the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective serves up All’s Well that Ends Well, a rarely-performed Shakespearean “problem play”: a beast neither comedy, nor tragedy, nor history.
The play is the story of Helena, a low-born doctor’s daughter, who gains the king of France’s favor by curing his illness, and uses this to coerce her foster brother Bertram into marriage with her. Bertram flees to the Italian wars, where he goes about the countryside deflowering virgins, until Helena manages to trick him into having sex with her so that she can get pregnant and force him to return to home. There is a subplot about a fool that is tangentially related to the plot, and a second subplot about a clown that’s even more tangential.
If it seems like the reason All’s Well That Ends Well is rarely-produced is because of its nightmarish gender politics and grotesque classism, the truth is that it’s probably just because it’s boring. Shakespeare’s comedies have no shortage of class cruelty and misogyny, but All’s Well doesn’t even have the benefit of a snappy, love-hate relationship like Much Ado About Nothing, or Twelfth Night’s twins and disguises. The play is one-quarter people explaining what their plots are and three-quarters explaining what their plots were, with nary a murder or mistaken identity in sight.
Akeem Davis acquits himself well enough as Bertram. It’s not Davis’s fault that Bertram’s transformation from “callow cad fleeing an unwanted marriage” to “loving husband” happens in the space of an instant that seems too small for even a veteran actor’s skills; it’s similarly not his fault that the optics of a young black man cast as a serial deflowerer of virgins who’s browbeaten by a largely white cast into settling down to marriage after a woman tricks him into getting her pregnant are, if we’re being generous, appalling.
Melanie Stefan-Watts’s Helena is worse, though. In his program notes Hodge asks us to think of Helena’s single-minded pursuit of Bertram in the context of first crushes and unrequited love, but it’s hard to reconcile coercing a man into marriage and tricking him into getting her pregnant with moon-eyed, youthful infatuation. Stefan-Watts has a breathy, choppy delivery that robs Helena’s longer speeches of their momentum and exhausts much of the audience’s patience with her; Hodge having her sob her way through two-thirds of the first act exhausts the rest.
Of the clowns, Brian McCann’s Lavatch is probably the production’s most polished performance, but there’s nothing particularly revelatory about it, and certainly nothing that salvages the existence of Lavatch in the first place. Damon Bonetti’s Parolles is decent, though mileage may vary depending on how much you like Jacobean puns about virginity. Bonetti plays him with a kind of frat-boy dopiness that’s watchable, but it’s not quite charming enough to make his fall pathetic, nor aggravating enough to make it satisfying.
What’s most striking about All’s Well is how wrong it is. In the second half, Helena relates her plan to Diana (Donovan Lockett), a local virgin with whom Bertram is infatuated. She explains, because they’ll switch places in the bedroom, Bertram will actually be keeping his marriage vows instead of breaking them by being unfaithful to his wife, and therefore the plan isn’t a sin at all but protects Bertram from sin.
But is it? It’s definitely a sin to deceive someone into having sex with you, even if you’re really married to him, and especially if your plan is to conceive a child with him that he doesn’t want. Similarly, Parolles’s plotline — a common Shakespearean trope about a puffed-up striver who acts above his station and gets put in his place by real noblemen — seems bafflingly cruel in the 21st century because it is bafflingly cruel. Shakespeare’s idea that this is funny, or good, or somehow vital to his story was wrong; it’s just pointlessly mean.
Under other circumstances, All’s Well that Ends Well would probably be an object lesson. A play’s provenance doesn’t automatically confer value on it, and there is no corner of the world that is free from politics. Racism, classism, sexism, and every form of exploitation and hierarchy have infused our culture since time immemorial, and every word of every play must take a position on them, no matter how old the work is or how central to a canon.
The truth is, though, that this play is too dull to get exercised about, and the only question it really raises is about Philadelphia Artist’s Collective essential mission to reclaim these plays from the dustbin of history: is it possible that some of them really belong there?