A dark, almost gothic set surrounded by a myriad of laughing faces. A series of dramatic scenes followed by comedic ones. Laughter pitted against heartache. Shakespeare sure enjoys contradiction, and he does not fail to employ it in one of his famous problem plays, “All’s Well that Ends Well.” This play earns its status as a problem play not only because of its dark comedy but also because it is seemingly two plays wrapped into one.
Directed by theater professor Christopher Owens, William and Mary Theatre presents the show this weekend, after four weeks and a total of about a hundred hours of rehearsal. The amount of time and preparation put into this production into reality certainly paid off — there was no shortage of laughing and roars of approval from the audience. Expectations seemed to be high going into the show, manifested by the large turnout of both students and Williamsburg residents.
The play tells the story of Helena (Zoe Speas ’12) and her love for Count Bertram (Andrew Collie ’11). She is forbidden to become his wife because she is only the gentlewoman of his mother, the Countess (Bess Kaye ’09). Her fortune changes when she cures the King of France (Alec Anderson ’11) from his infirmity and becomes Bertram’s wife through the help of the king. Although her love is unrequited by Bertram, she stops at nothing to gain his love.
The title, “All’s Well that Ends Well” truly captures Helena’s relentless desire for Bertram in that she acts in such a way that the ends indeed justify the means. Bertram who is forced into marrying Helena finds a way to rid himself of his wife by telling her that he can never be her true spouse unless she can possess his family ring and be pregnant with his child — two things he is certain she will not be capable of fulfilling. Helena outfoxes him through the “bed-trick.” This play is the first of Shakespeare’s to introduce the sexual maneuver, where a man sleeps with someone accidentally.
With the help of the maiden, Diana (Megan Behm ’11), Helena is able to trick Bertram into being her “true” husband once and for all.
Comic relief relieves the tension of and provides a contrast to the more dramatic scenes between Helena and Bertram. Characters such as Parolles (Thomas Baumgardner ’09), Lavatch (Keegan Cassady ’10) and Lord Lafew (Connor Hogan ’10) arouse laughter and smiles through humorous dialogue, misunderstandings, and, most notably, the unforgettable duping of Parolles.
From the opening dialogue to the last lines, the performance’s high-quality acting, smooth scene changes and intriguing costume design kept the audience engaged at all times. What grabbed the audience’s attention the most was the seamless execution of lines delivered in iambic pentameter. The rhythm helped meld scenes together, by both setting the choreography for the character’s motions and giving meaning to an otherwise complicated language.
The Florentine soldiers expose the proud, ribbon-strewn Parolles as the coward that he really is through a plot of tricks. They blindfold Parolles and speak in a threatening quasi-Russian accent filled with nonsense phrases. As Parolles quivers and pleads for his life, not knowing that it is his own people who are tricking him, the audience laughs due to the dramatic irony of them knowing what Parolles himself does not know. By engaging the audience with asides and soliloquies, the actors evoke sympathy for and allow identification with the characters.
Much of the sexual innuendo surrounding the play is caught in wordplay. Specifically, the scene preceding the “bed-trick” introduces the ring as a symbol of female sexuality. As Diana attempts to seduce Bertram, she reminds him that she is like his dear family ring in that she is the jewel and the legacy of her family that has yet to be given away, hinting that she is still a virgin.
The depiction of the officers speaking in foreign accents was quite entertaining, especially when they spoke in a Russian- Mafia accent, and then fluidly switched back to proper English. Additionally, Lord Lafew and Lavatch are portrayed as old men, a wit and a clown respectively — and the students embodied these characters in their voices, gaits and mannerisms. Everyone essentially became their character, and this assumption of character, was remarkably accurate throughout the play. There were very few, if any, stumbling errors.
Much of the comedy is clear when presented in its dramatic/ theatrical form because the textual lines lack the emotion and creative interpretation that a play is able to offer. For instance, the overall facial expressions shown by actors helped convey further comic meaning. The interrupting, non-spoken actions reflected in the exaggerated fear of Parolles or the ridiculous hyena-pitched laughter of Lord Lafew compared to Parolles’ equally entertaining laugh were apparent, though not translated in the text.
The play will run tonight through Sunday at the Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall theater. All performances will begin at 8 p.m., except for Sunday, which will begin at 2 p.m. Tickets can be purchased for $5 for students and $8 general admission at the PBK box office and online.
__Editor’s Note: Zoe Speas ’11 is a Flat Hat Confusion Corner columnist.__