All's Well that Ends Well

Lantern Theater, St. Stephen's Theater, 923 Ludlow St., through Mar. 9, 893-1145.

I'm beginning to get a sense of the Lantern Theater's work, now that they're halfway through their second full season: competent, sober, increasingly professional, aggressively un-glitzy and admirably unpandering.

Charles McMahon's production of Shakespeare's disturbing comedy All's Well that Ends Well for Lantern benefits from the house style. It is, after all, a rather severe play. Two characters have died shortly before the play begins and a third is on his deathbed. The resourceful heroine, Helena (Heather Stuart), loves Bertram (T. Thomas Brown), a man above her station, and when she finally succeeds in marrying him, a third of the way through the play, he caddishly abandons her. By the time all of the plot strands are tied together, all may have ended well, but everyone's happiness is provisional, and the difficult work of picking up the pieces of their lives and letting their emotional wounds scab over lies before them.

If the Lantern production is a rather joyless affair, it's because the play's joy is so equivocal. The St. Stephen's stage, spilling forward from its proscenium arch at the back to a broad thrust stage, feels chillingly empty, barely populated in the court and battlefield scenes by the minimal ensemble of 11 actors. The only exuberance in the play comes from Eric Van Wie as Lavatch (one of Shakespeare's silliest and least comprehensible clowns), and Russ Widdall as the braggart Parolles, whose sheer exuberance is the most reprehensible and least trustworthy thing about him.

The comic subplot takes care of itself (as Parolles himself observes, "Who cannot be crushed by a plot?"). And the members of the older generation (Anthony Lawton as the ailing King, E. Ashley Izard as the Dowager Countess and Gary Tucker as the old gentleman Lafew) can do little more than look on, aware of their own mortality and envious of the ardor of the younger characters.

That leaves the production to dwell instead on its troublesome love plot. And McMahon goes a long way toward getting to the murmuring arrhythmia at the play's heart, simply by letting Stuart and Brown show us the inner workings of Helena and Bertram as they do-si-do their way into a relationship.

This we see in little glimpses: when Helena, once the King allows her to choose Bertram as her husband, confesses her love to him, afraid to look him in the eyes, half knowing that her love is not returned; and when Bertram, abashed at the end of the play, crams into a single word ("both") a combination of shame, pain and a spark that might one day become something that he or we might possibly call love.

It's in such rare and precious moments that the play and the production start to live and breathe.

-- Cary M. Mazer