A Shakespeare tale of old, redone with a few sharp twists, “All’s Well That Ends Well” opens at Chicago Shakespeare Theater with lovesick confession:
Lovely Helen’s father, a brilliant physician who taught her his secrets, has recently died. And now Helen’s guardian, the Countess of Rossillion, has lost her own husband, with a burial underway. Yet Helen reveals that for all this tragedy, she’s most obsessively concerned about what’s to come next: Her heartthrob Bertram, son of the dead Rossillion, will now be packed off to Paris to undergo tutelage of the King. Bertram will be in the royal orbit, and she will be out of it entirely.
Learning this much of the plot, you may be thinking Disney, happily yadda yadda. But leave it to Shakespeare to hang this tale on humor’s ribald cutting edge, and for the CST director Shana Cooper to sharpen the knife.
When: Through May 29
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand Ave.
Run time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including one intermission)
Once you figure out that this is not your grandmother’s Shakespeare — at CST, it never is — then you can settle in for the ride. The high-energy production has a rock opera, graphic novel vibe that comes off as a brazen dream.It is buttressed with strong strokes by Andrew Boyce, Raquel Barreto, Paul James Prendergast and Stephanie Martinez, who made a vigorous whole of the scenery, costumes, music and choreography, respectively.
Almost immediately, Shakespeare’s tale reaches the point where you think the story might end, with the sick French king miraculously healed by the physician’s daughter, and the girl rewarded with Bertram himself, as a sort of royal thank-you. ”Go ahead, take him in marriage,” or words to that effect, says the recuperating King to young Helen, who suggested the idea. Stunned Bertram, who thinks of Helen more as a sister, angrily reacts, “Whoa.”
The two romantic leads are indeed promising in their CST debuts. Dante Jemmott, who has performed at Canada’s Stratford Festival, creates an endearingly tentative Bertram, barely adult, clearly horrified at his apparent fate, not quite sure how much muscle he can flex at court after having been given away as a husband. Armed with the comical wisdom of his naughty buddy Parolles, rebellious Bertram takes off for Italy to fight some war that seems to need fighting. And when it comes to the foreign girls, he vows to love ’em and leave ’em as his fellow soldiers do. None of this marriage business for him. The stage explodes with his buddies’ dance-like moves.
Meanwhile, desperate Helen devises her own wildly intricate funny business to win Bertram against all odds, admitting that she is infected with a smitten heart “too capable of every line and trick of his sweet favour.” Alejandra Escalante, a regular at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, projects ease with the Bard’s language and onstage a certain defiance, all the better for a character such as Helen, who must brave almost impossible odds in her quest to seduce the man of her dreams and become the bearer of his child, without his knowing.
For the best of reasons in this play, the characters make beds they will find quite awkward to lie in. Audience members who survived the fitful liberations in the ’60s and ’70s will sympathize. In fact, the show is abloom with wildly modern viewpoints. It’s hard to imagine “All’s Well” doing nearly as well, or seeming nearly as funny, on the legit stage of previous centuries.
The cast is deep in quality. Bertram’s impetuous buddy Parolles, hellbound for fun in the Italian wars, is played to the radical hilt by Mark Bedard. The pricelessly exasperated Lafeu, a lord ever mindful of the court, is played by William Dick as one who manages to barely rein things in. Francis Guinan is the King of France, old and feeble on first glance, but a lion in winter if there ever was one, able to make the strongest cower if he infers the slightest suggestion of impudence. And for the clown’s clown, look no further than Elizabeth Ledo, who plays Lavatch, the Countess’ clown, with seemingly effortless, laid-back sarcasm. I hung on every line.
So, is all well in this comedy? Despite oblique assurances throughout that all might become well, the play feels modern in that the resolution is defiantly unclear. All is clearly not well entirely, not for Bertram anyway. He has been tricked. The story is at an inflection point for the two lovers, one of them unwittingly trapped by a trick in the dark. Will all stay well? The answer is only yes for now. For a time. It’s certainly no fairy tale.