Theater review: All's Well That Ends Well

BY HARLEY ROACH | The Statesman Like any great writer, even Shakespeare had his flops.  “All’s Well That Ends Well” is considered by many to be one of these flops.  However, I was surprised and delighted by UMD’s rendition of the play.

Shakespeare’s syntax is antiquated to the point where many publications of his works will feature a page of dialogue as it was originally written followed by a page of the same dialogue in an updated syntax.  

When performing a Shakespeare play, there is a lot of pressure on the cast to interpret and inflect the lines of dialogue in such a way that a modern audience can understand and follow along.  

The cast of “All’s Well That Ends Well” was not only good at this, but they seemed to be having fun while doing it.

I found that much of the production’s enjoyability can also be attributed to the director’s hard work and tweaks to the script.  In her notes for the show’s playbill, director Kate Ufema addressed one of the play’s widely-accepted flaws:  Despite the fact that “All’s Well” is canonically considered a comedy, the play can be serious and heavy at times.  

Ufema’s adaptation followed a more comedic path.  This production incorporated original content, presenting the audience with supplementary interactions among the characters to establish a solid comedic vibe.  To me, this was a massive improvement on what I interpret as a very questionable work.

To understand the issues with “All’s Well,” it’s important to have an idea of the plot.  If you prefer your 400-year-old plays to have surprise endings, I apologize for the spoilers below.

Helena is a ward to Countess Roussillon and is in love with the countess’s son, Bertram.  After his father’s death, Bertram inherits his position in the French court.  Helena, the low-born daughter of a late physician, follows Bertram to Paris with the most powerful medicine her father left her.  She offers it to the dying king in exchange for the opportunity to select a husband from the men of the court.  Helena chooses Bertram, who is 100% not into it.  Regardless, the king threatens Bertram with death if he does not comply, and the young couple is married.  Bertram attempts to escape the union by fleeing to Italy, refusing to return home as long as Helena is there.  Helena fakes her death to lure him back to France, tricks him into consummating their marriage, and then comes clean to Bertram.  Touched that she went to such great lengths to win him over, he falls in love with her.

This is considered a “progressive” work of Shakespeare’s because, at the time, the thought of a woman pursuing a man and earning his love through her own wit was ridiculous.  However, as a modern audience most of us will find the story to be unfair to Bertram.

One of the most notable (and appreciated) changes Ufema’s adaptation offers is the addition of Bertram’s interest in Helena.  In Shakespeare’s “First Folio” script, not much exists to suggest that Bertram cares for Helena.  In fact, even though Bertram is supposed to be unlikeable, Helena proves to be the more loathsome of the two after her proud decepticon.  

Ufema’s additional pantomimes suggest an ongoing flirtation between Bertram and Helena prior to the events of the play.  By extent, this implies that Bertram’s hesitance to marry Helena stems purely from her lack of a noble title, not from his lack of love for Helena.  This production helps to bring Helena into a heroic light by creating a more positive dynamic for their relationship.

These subtle changes ultimately did wonders for the play.  Without having to do ethical and logical gymnastics to justify Helena’s actions, I was able to sit back and laugh at the humor in “All’s Well,” while enjoying the cast’s lively, upbeat portrayals.

Most impressive of all was the cast’s ability to work with one of Shakespeare’s sketchier plays and create a positive, comfortable context for the play simply through pantomime.  Morbid curiosity has me wondering:  If they can make “All’s Well” work, what could UMD’s Department of Theatre do with a trainwreck like “Titus Andronicus?”

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