** out of 4 stars
What’s in a name? If Shakespeare’s name weren’t attached to All’s Well That Ends Well, this play might be gathering dust in some archives. It’s a pleasant fairy tale about an earnest young physician’s daughter named Helena (Miriam Silverman) who saves the life of the King of France (Ted van Griethuysen). The grateful monarch offers Helena the groom of her choice. But Helena’s heart’s desire doesn’t desire her. Bertram (Tony Roach) runs off to war rather than consummate his marriage, leaving an angry king; his despairing mother, the Countess of Rossillion (Marsha Mason); and an intrepid bride determined to get her man.
Choreographer Karma Camp creates a delightful number in which Helena dances with each of her prospective husbands before choosing Bertram. There are some fun parts as Helena pursues Bertram to Italy, where he has joined the army of the Duke of Florence. The most fun, though, is provided by the minor characters. Bertram’s aide de camp, Parolles (Michael Bakkensen), pursues a hilarious pretense of military prowess. The comely Diana (Natalie Mitchell) outsmarts Bertram when he tries to steal her maidenly virtue. And the wise and witty Lafew (Paxton Whitehead) provides a running commentary on the follies of all he surveys.
Poor Marsha Mason—a multiple Academy Award nominee, including for the 1977 hit The Goodbye Girl—has little to do as the Countess but wring her hands and hope her son will see the error of his ways. It isn’t a role rife with possibilities for an accomplished actress, although Mason does get two nice costumes to wear.
Shakespeare Theatre director Michael Kahn is committed to producing all of the Bard’s offerings, and he can likely find meaning that escapes us lesser mortals. In All’s Well, Kahn stresses that the journeys Helena and Bertram undertake—he to Italy for the adventure of war, she in pursuit of him—are really journeys from childhood to maturity. In Helena’s case, it’s a journey from girlish innocence to womanly acceptance. It’s unclear whether Bertram has outgrown his self-absorbed insensitivity, but she wants him just the same.
This is a pretty production. There isn’t much there, but what makes it to the stage is sweet.
At Shakespeare Theatre Company through October 24, 2010. For tickets ($48 to $93), click here.