In Shakespeare, women are often superior to the men they love. Even so, All's Well That Ends Well is extreme. Gifted Helena falls in love with loser Bertram, as Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival ends its summer season with a work that is rarely performed.
Easy to see why. Called variously a "dark comedy" and a "problem play," Shakespeare's tone in it is dryly cynical. Save bravery in war, Bertram is a worthless class snob. And while Helena is a virtuous victim she, too, strains our sympathies. Deceptive from the start, she wins over Bertram with "the bed trick."
Yet PSF succeeds in turning All's Well into light comedy. It is a fitting triumph of "Extreme Shakespeare," the attempt to mimic how the Elizabethans produced theater. The actors rehearsed for just four days without a director. They usurped the stage of Twelfth Night, scrounged clothes and props from other sets, and let it fly.
Perhaps it was this breezy, extemporaneous approach that led the troupers to reinvent the play. It starts with Emiley Kiser, the young actress who plays Helena. She captures the character's anguish. But with her soft voice and innocent bearing, Kiser bleaches out the sardonic bitterness in some of Helena's speeches.
Similarly, Spencer Plachy changes Bertram. He never comes across as a complete cad, unlike the callow lout in the script. When Bertram abandons Helena after the forced marriage, Plachy injects a note of hesitation and regret. Thus, the happy ending feels more plausible.
All's Well begins darkly. Greg Wood turns in a sterling performance as the dying King of France. Anthony Lawton is a stalwart Lafew, and you cannot take your eyes off Susan Riley Stevens as the countess/mother. But only the older characters have honor and forceful stage presence. What can the future offer?
It does not stay gloomy for long. A clown (Eric Hissom, who played Feste in Twelfth Night), cheers us up. Then there is Parolles, who covers up cowardice with blustering bravado. Jim Helsinger plays the character for slapstick laughs.
Turning a clownish rogue into a clown further diverts you from Shakespeare's grim outlook. At the end the king says, "all seems well," and Bertram professes, "I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly." He protests too much. But matters have turned so gay that the ending does not feel forced, as it would in a more loyal rendering of Shakespeare's tongue-in-cheek play.