Not-Quite-Happy Ending 

Nashville Shakespeare Festival fares reasonably well with “problem” comedy

Nashville Shakespeare Festival fares reasonably well with “problem” comedy

All’s Well That Ends Well

Presented by the Nashville Shakespeare Festival

Through Sept. 8 at the Centennial Park Band Shell

It’s funny how readily we associate the words of Shakespeare with romantic love. From Romeo and Juliet’s desperate, ill-fated affair to the idealistic overtones of the beloved sonnets, the Bard’s poetry is usually equated with passion that transcends mere convention or practicality. Yet Elizabethan times offered rare opportunity for simply being “in love” to lead to marital bliss and happily-ever-afters. Truth to tell, the situation probably hasn’t changed that much. Only in Hollywood do notions of pure love usually win the day. In the real world, you still need a financial foundation to launch a life with that “perfect” partner. Furthermore, social standing still matters to many people.

So welcome to the world of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well—a title that disguises the otherwise fairly dark message of a script that is nevertheless considered a comedy, albeit holding academic standing as a so-called problem play. OK, we laugh plenty enough at the Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s new production, and that’s as it should be, for nowhere is the Bard’s skewering of human nature in the service of laughter more eloquent. But if you’re looking for frothy comical high jinks and silly scenarios of cross-dressing and mistaken identity, you won’t find it here. It’s an edgy little play, this All’s Well, but maybe that’s what makes it so good.

The action veers from France to Italy and back. Orphaned commoner Helena saves the king of France from a deathly illness, using potions contrived by her late father. In exchange for his life, the king grants her the choice of a suitor from his court. Count Bertram gets the nod, though he’s none too happy about it, particularly given that Helena is of inferior birth. So he does what any self-respecting guy would do: He heads off to war with his arrogant buddy Parolles. As far as Bertram is concerned, if the union isn’t consummated—“I wedded her but not bedded her”—then it ain’t the real thing. He tells Helena as much in a letter from the front, then goes on to gain the favor of the Duke of Florence through his military exploits. He also meets a lovely Italian lass named Diana, whom he woos and—so he thinks—seduces. Plucky Helena, meanwhile, has cleverly, and quite stealthily, kept her eyes on her reluctant husband’s deportment. When Bertram returns to France, expecting to make a “proper” marriage with the daughter of Lord Lafew, there are surprise revelations awaiting all.

The plot is not as simple as all that, of course. There are various complications throughout, which only force the viewer to pay increasing attention to the florid language and the details of motivation. Act 1 of this production, under the direction of the estimable Audrey Stanley, is quite good. Momentum gathers consistently as the story unfolds, all in entertaining and pretty whimsical fashion. These positives are undercut more than a little by the somewhat tedious Act 2, a substantial part of which revolves around a subplot concerning the unctuous Parolles. Things seem to get back on track toward the end, as Bertram learns what it means to be a cad who turns into an honorable man, and all parties are reconciled to domestic good feelings.

It can be argued that the Bard ties everything up perhaps too quickly in a neat little bow. With that, the issue of true love is never broached, not in this society where discourse on the nature of romance is more formally pronounced and everyone ultimately adheres to the underlying notion that one’s worth is based on what one is or does. As for Bertram and Helena: I give it six months, a year tops.

Some good actors help to sustain the poetry and make it easier to overlook the static patches of action. In the difficult lead roles, Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Brian Niece offer competent if less than inspiring performances. As Bertram’s mother, Rona Carter provides a pleasant presence. Matthew Carlton, playing both the French king and the Italian duke, is generally very good, moving easily from all seriousness to subtle humor.

Those who distinguish themselves most with the Bard’s verses are supporting players, but they make the evening worthwhile. Matt Chiorini as Parolles has notable command of both the stage and his dialogue. Cecil Jones as Lafew projects sincerity and clarity, and elicits welcome chuckles with his sarcastic asides. NSF newcomer Jonathan Root as the clown Lavatch makes the most of this classic bit of Shakespearean comic relief, and he has energy to burn. Also debuting on the festival stage is Francie Murphey, who makes for a poised and charming Diana.

The costumes by Rene Chadwick and Aubrey Hyde reflect the play’s updated early-20th-century setting, which gives them opportunity to have some fun designing cavalry uniforms for many of the men. Carlton is also decked out colorfully—perhaps too obviously—in kingly red. Otherwise, the costumes don’t impress, an unfortunate situation especially for the women actors. As for Lili S. Parham’s set—supposedly inspired by the work of Austrian Art Nouveau painter and illustrator Gustav Klimt—it resembles a big, bulky bleached-out battleship of balsa wood. It’s seaworthy but only marginally aesthetic. (And one wonders what Klimt would’ve said.) On balance, Phillip Franck’s lighting was prosaic, but at one point seemed also dingy. If budgetary limitations play a role in these technical shortcomings, then someone in this city needs to spring for an extra $50,000 or so, to ensure that this important annual cultural event be presented with all the nobility and creativity that it deserves.

That said, All’s Well That Ends Well succeeds in spite of itself. The production continues through Sept. 8, and features pre-show guest musical performers each evening, including upcoming appearances by Jen Cohen, Amy Rigby, Andrea Zonn, Annie Sellick, Daniel Tashian, The Jack Silverman Ordeal and Gypsy Hombres.

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