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Director Nic Helms picked All’s Well that Ends Well, one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” to perform on February 15th and 16th as the first Improbable Fictions’ staged reading of the semester. These “problem plays” picked up the unofficial title because they were too funny to be called tragedies but were too unsettling to really seem like a comedy (and not, it should be noted, just unsettling in a Ricky Gervais British comedy sense). In some, the “problem” can be tough to pinpoint, stemming from a disquieting final act that does not end happily ever after. Here, however, the problem is clear, and his name is Bertram.

At first, it seems like Bertram (Joey Gamble), son of the Countess (Deborah Parker) might be a worthy recipient of the affections of the recently orphaned doctor’s daughter, Helena (Stacy Panitch). His veneer of nobility and civility disappears instantly, however, as soon as the slightest thing does not go his way. On my personal crib sheet, I have Bertram down as one of Shakespeare’s five most unpleasant characters; I would rather have a beer with Othello’s Iago. He insults the virtuous Helena when the King (Mark Hughes Cobb) requests he marry her, he promptly flees to the wars to avoid his new wife, and, to add insult to insult, he sets for her two impossible tasks to win him back: get pregnant by him despite his refusal to ever come to bed with her and get his family heirloom ring from his finger. Gamble portrays Bertram as comic and childish, channeling the most absurdly petulant pre-teen with his constant foot-stomps and slack-jawed exasperation. He explodes without warning into temper tantrums and behaves in the most immature way possible. Bertram claims to not want to marry Helena because of her lower class, but as soon as he is off at the wars, he chases and promises to marry a far lower class woman there. Gamble plays this encounter as if Bertram simply has a juvenile view of the world, one in which immediate gratification of wants and peevish outbursts in the face of obstacles are his only two possibilities. When Parolles (a fantastic, scene-stealing performance by Seth Panitch), the absurd braggart, at the end calls him “a dangerous and lascivious boy,” he accurately assesses both Bertram’s temperament and maturity; truth from the mouth of fools.

Of course, the main protagonist here is, thankfully, not Bertram but Helena. Helena is emotional as well, far more so than most of Shakespeare’s other heroines, and Stacy Panitch effectively plays up her struggles with her own emotional volatility. Her furtive glances bloom into rapture when her care of the King allows her to select Bertram as her husband; just as swiftly she must (at least when in the presence of others) contain her crushing disappointment and humiliation at his treatment of her, even going so far as to blame herself for his unforgivable actions.

On some level, these quick transitions are what make the play difficult to perform. All’s Well is a hybrid creature, neither comedy or tragedy, and the moments where one shifts into the other were perhaps a bit jolting in this staging. Helena and Bertram’s encounter after their hasty marriage (and just before he flees the country) is played for broad humor while the next scene, a conference between Helena and the Countess, instantly downshifts to the deadly serious. Of course, this problem is largely with the original play, but either scene can be played seriously or so over the top as to be darkly funny. Smoother transitions might have led the audience more naturally to Helena’s devastating soliloquy of misplaced guilt.

This performance tackles the other “problem” with the play head on, however. Why does Helena see Bertram as a prize worth fighting for (or even worth settling for)? I was struck in this viewing by the number of astronomical references; the “stars in heaven” are invoked to help heal the king, Helena and Parolles’ debate about what planet was in the ascendance at his birth, and another character speaks of the “fiery” chariot of the sun. All this brings to mind Shakespeare’s story of “star crossed lovers,” Romeo and Juliet. Here, however, we see the reverse; it takes an astonishing number of coincidences to bring this couple back together (Improbable Fictions indeed!). More importantly, as Helena herself says, “Our remedies oft in ourselves to lie / Which we ascribe to heaven.” On some level, the story is about an intelligent and forceful woman seizing agency in a world where both her gender and her low birth make this task difficult. Panitch emphasizes Helena’s decision making; she chooses to journey to heal the king, she bets her life in a bargain, and she plans and executes the complicated trick to win her husband back. Bertram may be no catch, but perhaps she sees that he is malleable into something resembling a decent human, particularly now that he has hopefully been frightened out of his extended adolescence.

This reading is the one the Improbable Fictions troupe strives for in the end. By the finale, Bertram has abandoned Parolles and (albeit enforcedly) come face to face with the repercussions of his actions. His anguished “Oh pardon!” makes it seem like for a moment he has realized his hideous behavior and might have changed for the better. Whether this change sticks remains an open question, but Bertram seems to actually listen to the King’s words of wisdom about the dangers of a “love that comes too late.” Lafew (Steve Birch) gets one of the last lines of the play and, having shown himself a shrewd judge of morals and of character throughout the play, he cries in happiness at the reuniting lovers: “Mine eyes smell onions.” If the old and wise Lafew and the young and wise Helena are willing to forgive the seemingly unforgivable in Bertram, perhaps we can consider giving him one more shot as well.

~hawhitver

To hear an excerpt of the reading, go here. For more information on Improbable Fictions’ staged readings, please visit their website.