We have come to expect a certain magical air from our Shakespeare comedies: Whether set in an Elizabethan forest or transplanted to a modern era, we want our fix of twinkles like a drug. In the UCCS TheatreWorks' production of one of Shakespeare's stranger comedies, All's Well That Ends Well, director Murray Ross is intent on thwarting our expectations, withholding the fairy dust in favor of a more austere, mysterious performance covered by storm clouds rather than shimmering stars.
No doubt, Mr. Ross, who has been immersed in Shakespeare for years, wants to shake us in our boots, and in this endeavor he is not alone: Shakespeare himself seemingly wrote All's Well with the intent of discomforting a few audience members. The original text ends well as comedies ought, with a marriage or two, but only by the skin of its teeth, giving us on the way a glorious mess of deceit and bellicosity to match the clowning.
Set without props against a spare set of sandstone arches, the play begins with four characters dressed in black Victorian attire -- among them a weeping Helena (Tracy Hostmyer), whose recently deceased father was a mere doctor, and the young Count Bertram (Mark Hennessy), likewise mourning his dead father.
As we soon discover, Helena's tears derive not from filial devotion, but from her unrequited love for the richer Count Bertram. The Count, good looks aside, is an odd choice for Helena's fixation: He's a troubled snob who looks down on anyone without a noble pedigree, and besides, he pines for military action elsewhere in order to escape the bindings of the French court.
As presented, Helena isn't much of a catch either: She unapologetically uses sexuality and deceit to achieve her goals, all others be damned. In one scene, she cures the ailing King (Bob Pinney), but not because of altruism -- it's all part of a plan to marry the unwitting Bertram. In this role, Hostmyer displays little charm or tenderness, just mock-innocent self-pity and single-eyed ambition. For this reason, when other characters rhapsodize about her "virtue," we're left scratching our heads.
A play can succeed without many sympathetic characters, but it needs dynamism and, as an accompanying friend noted, a "nod and a wink" to let the audience know that they are being treated to a deliciously nasty spectacle. A good director, Ross supplies us with a measure of inventiveness to offset the difficult material: We love to hate the bullying dandy Parolles (Tom Paradise), played with pitch-perfect obnoxiousness by a veteran actor. The scenes between Parolles and the jocular Lord Lafew (Michael Preston) ring with comic energy.
Nevertheless, the play sometimes loses steam. As always, we have a fool, Lavatch (Steve Wallace), who should be our trusted guide -- wryly taking the play apart, giving us comic relief from heavier thoughts. Unfortunately, Wallace is either miscast or misdirected. His stammering, puzzled delivery worked last year as Andrew Aguecheck in Twelfth Night, but here it struggles to deliver the laughs.
At one point in the play, a French Lord argues, "The web of our life is a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud, if our faults whipt them not, and our crimes would despair, if they were not cherish'd by our virtues." Murray Ross, as if intrigued by an adventurous gauntlet to throw to his audience, tips the balance of this thesis by emphasizing the "faults" of his characters and avoiding the seasoning of their "virtues." As a result, he breeds excessive sullenness in what could have been a more buoyant production.