I've groused before that the good folks at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival operate at less than their best when doing Shakespeare himself. Maybe I should revise that: over the years, they have proven somewhat shaky at the big ones: mediocre at Hamlet, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, that sort of thing (though here is a pretty good Othello and here a passable Tempest). But a couple of years back, we saw a really impressive King John. And last night, we took in a convincing rendition of (are you ready for this?) All's Well That Ends Well.
All's Well is a tough nut for Shakespeare fans. It's not precisely a bad play--there is a lot of interesting stuff in it--but at the best of times it is a deeply unpleasant play, where it is near impossible to leave the viewer with anything a really wants to hang onto. The Ashland venture owes a lot of its success to Danforth Comins in the lead as Bertram. The boy seems to have a knack for not especially likeable people: he turned in an impressive Coriolanus last summer, and in other outings he has done Cassio (in Othello), Orlando (in As You Like It) and Benvolio (in Romeo and Juliet). His Bertram is young, full of high spirits, not overbright, but blessed with enough natural charm that you forget how he is really a rotter.
For Helena, his long-suffering adorer (stalker?), they took something of risk: they gave it to Kjerstine Rose Anderson, who played it as a more or less comic bumpkin. Okay, bumpkin is too strong. But this Helena, for all her human appeal, is unpolished: she slumps, she shuffles, she loses words (i.e., on purpose): if she went to finishing school, she surely never finished. It's basically the same schtick she tried as (the other) Helena in Midsummer Night's Dream. I don't think it worked in Dream. For this Helena, seasoned Shakespeareans may regard the bumpkin approach as old stuff but it was new to me (I tend to think of Helena as more in the line of dignified and long-suffering). Maybe it works; it's certainly something to think about, which is perhaps recommendation enough.
Outside the leads, the most noteworthy device may be that they have dressed the play up with a "Clown," who presides, inter alia, over an introduction and an epilogue. My first thought was -- uh oh, they're not trusting the script again, they've gone to panic mode and chosen to camp it up. But not really. What they've done is to stitch together a bunch of stage business onto a single thread of characterization, and in the end, yes, it probably does help to give unity and consistency to the whole. Necessrily a lot of the credit here goes to the actor, Armando Durán, who seems to be able to make his comedy delicate and unintrusive.
They've made somewhat the samer use of G. Valmont Thomas as Lafew, and also in a whole bunch of ensemble parts. Over the years, Thomas has honed a comic persona as the stuffy and clueless (yet somehow likeable) hanger-on who can add a tactful note of good nature to an otherwise tense piece of business. Doesn't work for everything, works nicely here.
When I say "they," I suppose I mean Amanda Dehnert, the director. Apparently she is new to Ashalnd. From a scan of her credits, I infer that she doesn't do a lot of Shakespeare. Maybe that is all for the best; maybe it keeps her from being inhibited in tackling this, one of the most challenging items in the Canon.
[That makes two: who would have guessed it? This is actually the second really good All's Well I've had the privilege of seeing in the past few years. The other was this eye-opening production back in 2006 in New York.
Cute Trick: There's a cute little narrative trick in the film that they run at the end that will be intelligible to anyone who is quick-witted and observant, and who remembers Newhart or St. Elsewhere. Mrs. Buce caught it, although I don't think she watched either.