- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2003

While entering the Folger Theatre for its production of Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well,” your eye alights on a black coffin bedecked in gold: No, this play is not going to be a laugh riot.

Like “Measure for Measure,” “All’s Well” is a transitional play in Shakespeare’s shift from lighter, romantic comedies to tragedies.

“All’s Well” is caught in the middle — the body count too low for tragedy, the subject matter and characters too sordid and difficult for frothy comedy.

The Folger’s staging, directed by Richard Clifford, emphasizes the more funereal and grim aspects of what has been called one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” The set and the costumes evoke the richly detailed black, gold and white palette of the Napoleonic Empire Style, and the lighting is subdued and dramatic.

Somber and muted would also describe the play’s heroine, Helena. Actress Holly Twyford usually portrays women of strength and pluck. Here, the actress — her hard-set chin perpetually on the verge of wobbling — plays the orphaned daughter of a gifted physician with a graveness that is sometimes handsome but more often dreary.

Helena is a talented young woman who cures the King of France (Rick Foucheux) of an illness his court physicians were stumped by, but she chooses to force herself upon the man she inexplicably loves, Bertram (James Ginty). He is a high-born count and career soldier who is a snobbish boor who not only detests Helena — who is of humbler birth — but runs off on their wedding night to fight in Italy, leaving instructions that she is never to see him again unless she can accomplish the impossible.

Helena must acquire the ring that never leaves Bertram’s finger, and she also must get pregnant with his child. Maybe, just maybe, if she fulfills these tasks, Bertram might deign to love her.

With this plotline, which no modern woman with a speck of romantic dignity could stomach, you cannot fault Miss Twyford for making Helena so grimly determined and humorless. In fact, “All’s Well” is played throughout with dogged seriousness when, perhaps, a more jaded or satiric view of Helena’s plight and Bertram’s bluenosed obstinacy might have made the play more palatable.

Instead, “All’s Well” is subdued and plodding to a fault. Even the presence of not one, but two clowns — Rick Hammerly and Suzanne Richard — fails to liven things up. Mr. Hammerly resorts to shrieks and dithering in the role of a cowardly and duplicitous captain, while Miss Richard fails to master the tongue-twisting intricacies of Shakespeare’s satiric, epigrammatic dialogue.

Mr. Ginty plays Bertram as such a weakling and pouty fellow you are completely flummoxed as to why Helena is so determined to make him love her. At the end, the couple is united, but it is a queasy victory.

“All’s Well” is one of those plays where the most interesting things happen offstage, leaving the audience to make do with secondhand accounts. We wish we could have witnessed the unfolding of Helena’s ruse against her husband rather than hear some Italian ladies chat about it the morning after, or have seen Bertram’s transformation from a cad to someone with real feelings for Helena rather than hear him mention it offhandedly to his mother (Catherine Flye).

“All’s Well” is a dark comedy, true, but that’s not supposed to mean that the audience is left in the dark.

**

WHAT: “All’s Well That Ends Well” by William Shakespeare

WHERE: Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Nov. 30.

TICKETS: $30 to $48

PHONE: 202/544-7077

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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