The battle of the sexes is a timeless topic explored in drama. However, when presented in a fresh and inventive way, it can provide a thought-provoking night at the theater. All’s Well That Ends Well, directed by Daniel Sullivan and currently in performances at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, pits men and women against each other in a timely, topical and entertaining manner.
Known as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” All’s Well That Ends Well follows the story of Helena (Annie Parisse, excellent), a common-born woman who is hopelessly and somewhat inexplicably infatuated with Bertram (capably performed by Andre Holland), a nobleman. Raised as a ward by Bertram’s mother the kindly Countess of Rousillon (a wonderful Tonya Pinkins), Helena is ignored by Bertram and broken-hearted when he departs his home.
The orphaned daughter of a physician, Helena utilizes her departed father’s medical research to save the king (an excellent John Cullum) from a deadly illness and is rewarded for her efforts by selecting any man from the kingdom as her husband. Not surprisingly, she selects Bertram, much to his shock and outrage. He promptly flees to the army, but not without sharing one kiss with his new wife, which provides one of the more amusing and poignant moments of the show. After Helena practically begs her husband to kiss her, he consents, but instead of a momentary peck, he continues to kiss her, and after the kiss ends he utters, “Hmm,” in a surprised and somewhat pleased tone of voice. This moment offers a brief insight into Bertram’s character – immature and stubborn, but perhaps able to develop throughout the show – as well as the possible sexual connection between Helena and Bertram.
This sexual attraction between the two is necessary to further the plot of All’s Well That Ends Well, especially in order to understand the motivations behind Helena’s incredible actions. One of the problems with the play is it’s difficult to understand why Helena loves Bertram so deeply when he isn’t very nice to her. Is Helena merely a doormat? Apparently not, given the independence and resourcefulness she demonstrates later in the play. Then why is she so hopelessly smitten with Bertram when she could probably marry another man who would actually give her the time of day?
The imbalance of power in the man-woman relationships is another problem with this play. I am not sure which word is used more in the script – “virtue” or “virginity” – but when discussing women, it appears that the two are interchangeable. Helena’s virtue is discussed frequently, and many lament that Bertram does appreciate what a virtuous wife he has. However, it is clear very quickly that Bertram’s “virtue” is not considered nearly as important.
Neither character is presented as completely virtuous. In order to win Bertram back to her home (and into her bed) Helena resorts to some morally questionable tricks, including deceiving her husband into thinking he is making love to the comely woman Diana (Kristen Connolly) when it is actually her in his bed. But Helena continues to love Betrtam despite his flaws, seemingly resigned to the fact that he s a man and men will be cads. This is a familiar sentiment, given the recent public sexual scandals and discussions of wives that stand faithfully by their husbands. But one wonders – how would this act be perceived if the genders were reversed? If a man tricked a woman into sleeping with him, would the audience respond in the same way?
While the driving plot of the show is a heavy one, All’s Well That Ends Well also contains many cleverly staged, light-hearted moments. Bertram’s sidekick Parolles is played by Reg Rogers, who attempts to steal each scene he is in, but does not always succeed. Rogers articulates Parolles with thick accent that seems to have been inspired by a combination of Monty Python and Borat and is jarringly out of place in this production. Fed up with Parolle’s false grandeur, his fellow soldiers kidnap and interrogate him, thus exposing him for the fraud and coward that he really is. These scenes are truly amusing to witness.
I was especially impressed with the meaning of the final scene, as Helena and Bertram appear to truly see each other for the first time. It gives the show a final – and necessary – uplifting moment. Efficiently staged on Scott Pask’s simple set, with costumes by Jane Greenwood and lighting by Peter Kaczorowski, All’s Well That Ends Well is an aesthetically pleasing and truly lovely production. But while the idea of Shakespeare in the Park sounds romantic, I wouldn’t suggest seeing this show on a first date.