A rarely produced dark comedy from the annals of William Shakespeare’s lexicon of material is ushering in springtime at Navy Pier. All’s Well That Ends Well might not have the popularity or recognizability of titles like Romeo and Juliet or Othello, but the dark comedy is certainly high energy silliness. Director Shana Cooper keeps the pace light and fast as this story juggles a hoard of over a dozen characters, who on the surface have little in common, and milks out the fun. From royalty to commoners, the twist and turns of the narrative make sense by the story’s end, just stay with the journey. At the heart, ethical issues are not necessarily solved by simple solutions. For example, what length does one go to when the object of their affection doesn’t return the same feelings?
Written by English playwright William Shakespeare, considered one of the greatest dramatist of all time, this play is told in a darker, more cynical tone. Also, it’s spoken in the Bard of Avon’s favorite iambic pentameter style. Don’t fret, the costuming and surface charms are entirely modern and make this material very easy to digest. At one point the “ladies of Italy” dance, breaking into Beyonce’s familiar “Single Ladies” choreography. At this point, I knew this was not my grandparent’s interpretation of Shakespeare.
The play unfolds at the funeral of the Countess of Rossillion’s (Ora Jones) husband. Death certainly becomes the first act, as we also meet the orphaned daughter of the Countesses’ doctor, Helena (the likeable Alejandra Escalante) a young and beautiful healer in her own right. Her recently deceased physician father, from whom she learned all of his trade secrets, then helps to heal the King of France (Francis Guinan) suffering from a near fatal disease. Once he is back in fighting shape, he wants to reward her and suggests an arrangement of marriage with Bertram (Dante Jemmott), the Countesses’ son. Bertram instead flees his royal duties, and potential matrimonial entanglement, to join the military in far away Italy. Well, unbeknownst to him, Helena, naturally, fakes her own death and then follows him to Italy in an attempt to win his heart. Well, being in love with a man who doesn’t return her feelings, she goes to extreme lengths, both physically and metaphorically, in the hopes to win his heart.
On top of this, there are several subplots featuring a menagerie of wildcards. The wildest, a weasel named Parolles (Marc Bedard) as the absolutely self absorbed, court jester type. The physical resemblance to Ryan Gosling cannot be coincidental and Bedard plays this with pompous aplomb. Also played straight for laughs, the clownish, Lavatch (Elizabeth Ledo) pelvic thrusting like a chihuahua in heat. The height difference alone between Ledo and Jones adds an additionally delightful sight gag during their repeated flirting scenes. This relationship goes nowhere, except to the funny bone. Add in a faked kidnapping, a case of mistaken identity, a Cyrano de Bergerac inspired love triangle, and there is more farce here than in a month of daytime soap operas. All’s Well That Ends Well might be an ambitious title, but the audience will definitely find some giggles during the proceedings.
Stephanie Martinez’s choreography was surprisingly modern. The aforementioned Beyonce moment, boy-band boogie in the military scenes, her flow is definitively contemporary. Raquel Barreto’s costumes were all over the place, and that added to the fun. From the classic period dresses on the Countess to the Pucci print inspired scarves influenced by the 1960’s, to modern day khakis worn during the military scenes, this visual gamble was a contemporary twist to make Shakespeare more accessible to the masses, and it worked. Andrew Boyce scenic design elements were sparce but solid. It is tough when the audience surrounds three-quarters of the stage, but his pieces served the narrative well. Adam Boyce’s effective and deliberate lighting also helped push the momentum forward.
William Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well might not be one of his most famous pieces, and it does require patience from the viewer as it takes a while to get going. The conclusion here more satisfying than the dry text might have originally called for. I kept wondering why Bertram had such disdain for Helena. She is smart, educated, saved the King’s life and is now in his debt, well connected, actually loved him and was also easy on the eyes. What’s not to like? Instead he runs away to another country to escape this arranged marriage and starts dating other women. Bertram, you could do MUCH worse. Helena, you can do much better. So, spoiler alert, when they end up together in the end, its in the title folks, I couldn’t help but wonder, is all going to be well? Come for the giggles, stay for a talented troupe making this material accessible and easily understandable for a new generation. All’s Well That Ends Well is an affable trip to the theater.
If I may, I would also like to thank the entire box office staff at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. I attended on a very rainy and messy Saturday afternoon and they were so kind to me. So kind in fact, they even let me charge my cell phone in their office during the entire second act. Their above and beyond customer service so appreciated, I told them I would include a note about their generosity, in print, and in my review. I was so harried, I didn’t get their individual names, but that helpful trio certainly was a lifesaver and they know exactly who they are. Again, my sincerest thanks.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents All’s Well That Ends Well is now playing on Navy Pier through May 29, 2022.