August 28, 2009
Bard's All's Well confounds
No comedic undertone takes the edge off the asinine behavior.
I knew little about All's Well that Ends Well prior to seeing it this summer at Bard on the Beach.
I knew it involved a love story, travel to foreign lands, fighting wars, people hiding their identity and global truths that are revealed in the end. So, pretty much, a usual Shakespearian play.
What I didn't know was that it isn't a comedy. This was too bad, as I'll explain later. On the other hand, it isn't a tragedy, either. As director Rachel Ditor said in a previous interview with the Independent, it's considered a "problem play" because of this seeming lack of true identity.
As the story goes, Helena (Lois Anderson) saves the life of a king who then grants her wish of marrying any nobleman she chooses. Unfortunately, her choice, Bertram (Craig Erickson), with whom she's infatuated, feels she is beneath him. He says he will never be her husband unless she can get his ring off his finger and become pregnant with his child, both of which, he claims, will never happen.
From the start, the "problem" for me was not the play's lack of identity but dealing with the plot itself against a background of seriousness. While I know Shakespearian plays deal with moral attitudes and actions that can seem archaic and intolerable by contemporary standards, the rough edges of rude, misogynistic and self-deprecating behavior are usually tempered by comedic edges. This was why I was hoping that the play would be a comedy. That it's not is actually to the play's detriment.
The fact that Helena would chase after someone who clearly hates her made me want to rush on stage, take her by the shoulders and say, "Wake up, woman! You can do so much better than this!" while dragging her off for a self-esteem boost on Style by Jury. See, that's funny. And it makes me not care that Bertram's a jerk.
Alas, the play (and the protagonist) is serious – Helena wants her man and she runs all over Europe to find him.
As the play progressed, frustration somewhat abated, I found myself wrapped up in the smart little scheme Helena uses to achieve the two Herculian tasks – getting Bertram's ring and getting pregnant with his child. How she would achieve the latter without him knowing made me curious enough to forget about the self-esteem workshops she clearly needed and, in fact, see her in a rather different light.
She becomes a woman who is simply going after what she wants and has the cunning to pull it off. This made the play more interesting to me and changed the nature of the character.
It was something Ditor said she conceived of so that Helena wouldn't be seen as a weak victim. Ditor succeeds in her goal, as does Helena, who gets the ring, gets pregnant and gets her man.
Unfortunately, the ending of the play requires quite a bit of suspension of disbelief, which, once again, would have been easier to palate if it were a comedy. When Bertram finds out he was tricked and the woman he disdains is now carrying his child, rather than get a little peeved (which would have been an oh-so-natural reaction), he apologizes for the way he treated her and promises to love her forever.
Who knew that just a little shyster footwork could achieve what caring, loving and devotion could not? OK, perhaps that's a little too cynical for a theatrical performance. But if Bertram had shown even the slightest demeanor of anything but an ass throughout the whole play, perhaps I would have found the ending more acceptable. That he suddenly changes his tune 180 degrees was more than I could swallow.
Amid all this love and torment, the audience will have to deal with a time setting of the play not in the Shakespearian era, but in the Victorian one. Corsets, lace and garters, Ditor says in her director's notes, demonstrate the "barely contained passion" that gets covered up in a superficial, staid outer appearance. It's a contrast "between societal expectations and the bodily desires it seeks to control."
I'm not sure I got all of that out of the period setting. To me it just underlined the lengths women went to (and still go to) in order to conform to what society thinks they should look and act like. Perhaps this is where Helena actually breaks the mould. Rather than accept her lot in life, where a lowborn woman cannot marry a nobleman, Helena dares to ask for more. Too bad she had to prove it by going after such a jerk.
Bard on the Beach celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. It opened with A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1990, running 34 performances with 6,000 people attending. Last year, there were four plays, 213 performances and 87,000 in attendance. This season, Bard welcomed its one-millionth visitor.
This year's performances are Othello and The Comedy of Errors on the mainstage and All's Well and Richard II on the studio stage. Performances run until Sept. 19. For tickets and information, call 604-739-0559, or visit bardonthebeach.org.
Baila Lazarus is a freelance writer, painter and photographer. Her work can be seen at orchiddesigns.net.