ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL Theatre Review
Shakespearean scholars at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum -- which is celebrating the dramatist’s 450th birthday this summer -- including artistic director Ellen Geer tell your humble scribe that All’s Well That Ends Well is one of the more “difficult” of the playwright’s works, and is therefore infrequently performed. I suspect that this is, in part, because Well is among Shakespeare’s sauciest plays. Indeed, its subject matter is so frankly sexual that instead of “the Bard”, the Stratford-Upon-Avon wordsmith could very easily have been nicknamed “the Bawd.”
It’s intriguing that centuries before Freud Dr. Will wrote a play that revolves largely around sexual anxiety -- a subject that remains central to contemporary sitcoms such as The Mindy Project and Mom. Loss of virginity is very explicitly a major part of Well’s plot and theme; there is simply no beating around -- uh -- the bush about it. Indeed, it’s very easy to see how an “R”-rated version of Well could be -- uh -- mounted. The Theatricum’s version is probably more PG-rated, as there is no nudity per se (alas poor Yorick!). However, although your itinerant reviewer thoroughly enjoyed this Rabelaisian romp, parents who don’t want to explain the rather bawdy, naughty verbiage to their young ’uns may want to leave the kiddies at home, as this is definitely a dramedy for the grownups.
Well’s salty plot is too complicated to recount in full, but much of it deals with the fair, virginal Helena (the willowy Willow Geer), a commoner who is the daughter of a renowned doctor, and her amorous pursuit of the strapping young nobleman Bertram (Max Lawrence). After the French King (Wayne Stribling, Jr.) has betrothed Bertram and Helena to repay her for healing him, Bertram is so opposed to the union that to avoid the wedding night -- and marriage to Helena -- he joins the Duke of Florence’s army and leaves, posthaste, for the frontlines before the nuptials can be consummated. It is literally a case of make war, not love.
As is typical of productions at this Topanga Canyon amphitheater the cast makes excellent use of the surrounding woods, and, at around 30 members, is rather large. Some standouts include Mark Lewis as Parolles, a buffoonish dandy wearing a feather in his hat, through whom Shakespeare deflated militaristic posturing, much as his fellow countrymen, Gilbert and Sullivan, did centuries later with their character Major-General Stanley and his “Model of a Modern Major-General” song in 1879’s The Pirates of Penzance. Parolles is unmasked as the type of coward Dick Cheney is -- although Cheney received five deferments and avoided combat in Vietnam, he never met a war he didn’t like to send your sons off to fight on his behalf. Similarly, Parolles is a chicken hawk, like Sylvester “Rambo” Stallone and John Wayne, who made a career out of impersonating warriors onscreen but avoided military service like the plague offscreen.
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(BTW, although played for laughs, the mock capture and imprisonment of the droll Parolles -- like the Earl of Gloucester’s eye-plucking depicted onstage in the Theatricum’s version of Lear -- is symptomatic of a trend in U.S. productions since 9/11, when Cheney and company took America to the “dark side” and perpetrated torture at Gitmo and black sites around the world. From the TV series 24 to the feature Zero Dark Thirty and many other works, torture has been a recurring theme in American flicks, plays, etc.)
Alan Blumenfeld, who plays the abovementioned Earl of Gloucester in Leer, portrays the mandolin-strumming, exceedingly comical clown Lavatch, revealing himself to be a blooming idiot who is as adept at “low” comedy as Blumenfeld is at “high” drama. His humor is so blue that one half expects him to exclaim, a la Woody Allen to a chastity belt wearing maiden in 1972’s hilarious Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex…: “Lavatch must dispatch to open the latch to get at her snatch!” (The delicious Blumenfeld alternates in the role with William Dennis Hunt.)
What can one say about the chameleon-like Melora Marshall? As Lafeu, this delightfully dexterous thespian not only, as is her wont, portrays a male (Kentucky Colonel-like goatee and all), but the spry actress also plays a disabled, much older, greyer character than she is offstage.
Ellen Geer and Christopher W. Jones ably co-direct this frothy concoction, which includes a comical olde English comical term for wife or girlfriend: kicky-wacky. Although codpieces and chastity belts are strictly optional, costume designer Ben Kahookele’s colorful Middle Ages attire greatly enhances the performance. As usual the Theatricum’s casting is non-traditional; not only are Helena and Bertram an interracial couple, but methinks I’ve never seen so many Black and other non-white thesps in a Shakespeare play set in Europe (and that includes Othello). But like the gender bending in this Topanga outpost’s Leer, it all flows seamlessly and ends quite -- uh -- well. Not unlike the sex lives of the dramatis personae, wherein all live sexually ever after.
All’s Well That Ends Well is being performed in repertory through Oct. 4 along with Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lear plus Bill Cain’s Equivocation, which imagines a Shakespeare-like playwright writing about Guy Fawkes and England’s 1605 Gunpowder Plot, at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum: 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, California, 90290. For repertory schedule and other information call: (310)455-3723 or see: www.Theatricum.com.