Got To Be Real

All's not well in this Shakespeare comedy, and that's why it's a challenge.

by Cary M. Mazer

All's Well That Ends Well

Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, 2755 Station Ave., Center Valley, PA, through July 5,

(610) 282-WILL

Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well keeps trying to be a fairy tale, but reality - the reality of real lives, real needs, real disappointments, real human frailties - keeps intruding.

At one crucial point in the action, for example, Helena (Suzanne O'Donnell), the déclassé daughter of a famous physician, applies her late father's prescriptions to cure the King of France (Paul Barry) of his fatal illness, and is rewarded with her choice of courtier for a husband. Helena chooses Bertram (Ian Merrill Peakes), the son of the noble provincial matriarch with whom she lives. And so, a third of the way into the play, Cinderella gets her prince… except for one minor problem: Bertram wants nothing to do with her.

Ken Marini's production for the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival keeps trying to be a light comedy. And the play, to a considerable extent, is one. Lavatch (Carl Wallnau), one of Shakespeare's most tiresome and opaque clowns, cracks his laborious jokes. And, more successfully, Parolles (Jim Helsinger), the braggart soldier who persuades Bertram to flee from his wife and go off to the Tuscan wars, is subjected to a series of comic misadventures in which he is finally unmasked as a coward. Helsinger's comic turn, all cape-flourishes and shadow-boxing swordplay, is delicious - so delicious that Marini embellishes Parolles' entrapment with endless sightgags and pratfalls. And the director never resists the temptation to add a cheap-and-easy joke with a newspaper headline or a pregnant neighbor.

But reality - the messy reality of human frailty - keeps intruding on Marini's comic flourishes. This is partly due to Suzanne O'Donnell's admirably down-to-earth performance as Helena, the play's moral and emotional center. I haven't seen her appearances in recent years at the Festival, but I vividly recall her acting from her many leading roles with PART and the Arden in years past. O'Donnell always lets her emotions show on her face - so much so that it becomes almost contorted into a clown mask of delight, despair, or desire, her body stooped with the intense emotion. As Helena, O'Donnell languishes, and dares, and despairs, and dares again, all with a plain-spoken diction that stands in notable contrast to some of the more high-falutin' mid-Atlantic regional-Shakespeare-festival talk of the other members of the company.

To say that Marini's production doesn't solve the problems of the play is, perhaps, an unfair observation, for it suggests that the play's problems can be solved. Even if you can account for Helena's persistent love for Bertram, in the face of his repeated rejection of her, and after she witnesses for herself his callow, manipulative and duplicitous behavior with others, you still have to account for Bertram's final acceptance of Helena, and for her willingness to forge a genuine relationship with him after all they've been through. Like O'Donnell, Peakes is too emotionally truthful an actor to rely on easy answers. But Peakes and Marini do simplify Bertram's problem, playing him as a young man who can fall in love with, or fall under the influence of anyone if given the chance. In the very first scene, in front of his late father's tomb, he's overtly tender to Helena (and to an added pantomime character, who isn't identified until much later); and he nearly falls in love with Helena even while he is (at Parolles' instigation) in the process of abandoning her on his wedding night.

The result is that, for all of the difficult labor of Helena's geographic and emotional journey, and for all the hard-won struggles for self-knowledge that Bertram experiences, the play's romantic conclusion still seems too easy, too uncomplicated, not quite human enough. The fairy tale takes over, pushing the messy human issues - our persistent failures to know others, and to know ourselves - aside.

Paul Barry (late of the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival) plays the ailing King of France as though he were playing King Lear (which may not be a bad approach to the character). Kathleen Huber plays Bertram's mother, the dowager Countess of Rousillon, with wistful humanity. Will Neuert's set and Lisa L. Zinni's Caroline costumes (wide lace collars and royal-blue velvet capes, with incongruous lug-soled Doc Marten boots) are as cluttered and as over-embellished as Marini's comic touch.