Helena, the love-hungry heroine of Shakespeare’s strange and strained romantic comedy “All’s Well That Ends Well,” apparently never read “He’s Just Not That Into You.”
Despite the obvious indifference of Bertram (Nicholas Heck), the oblivious son of her sympathetic ward, the Countess of Rossillion (Kathleen Chalfant), Dana Green’s Helena is fixated on her faux beau in this lavish and resilient Yale Rep production. Showing why this is one of the Bard’s “problem” plays, it’s never clear what she sees in the callow lad. Certainly it’s difficult to understand why this gifted, intelligent and heartsick daughter of an esteemed physician can’t heal herself, insisting on his love even when he couldn’t care less about her.
We certainly understand why he may not be thrilled. Aside from seeing her as beneath his station, Bertram isn’t happy with this can-do commoner calling the shots. In debt to Helena for curing his deathbed ills, the King of France (John Cunningham, giving the role stature, wisdom and heart) decrees that she have her choice of the boys at court. Bertram has no choice but to wed — and flee his marriage and honeymoon bed to fight and play in Italy.
The production doesn’t solve so much as soften the problem of this relatively rarely produced play (though apparently not this season with Gotham, Beantown and now New Haven stagings coming in quick succession).
Unlike in other versions, Heck’s Bertram isn’t the petulant pup/rutting brat/shallow snob who doesn’t know a great gal when he sees her. Indeed, he has no relationship with Helena at all until he gets the unwelcome wedding tap.
This Bertram is on the bland and unformed side, especially in the first act. We don’t wince because he’s mean to Helena; we yawn because he’s boring. Heck’s Bertram makes little connection with Helena, with his mother, indeed with anyone.
That’s why it’s confusing to have him happily join in a bizarre song-and-dance when the king allows Helena to have her pick of the boys at court. Choreographed by John Carrafa (“Urinetown”), it’s a slick update of the type of hey-nonny-nonny number more appropriate for “Once Upon a Mattress.”
Things improve in the second act as both romantic leads find their confidence and characters. Green’s Helena grows from weepy wreck to self-possessed charmer. Now off fighting and loving in Italy, Bertram also matures as he starts to see people for who they really are. First, he realizes the cowardly essence of his knave of a sidekick Parolles (a wonderful, weasely perf by Richard Robichaux). Then at play’s touching end, he also sees Helena — and himself — in a new light, and for once we believe the show’s title without any ironic take.
Chalfant gracefully conveys the Countess’ divided loyalties with her son and Helena, and makes her increasing anguish heartbreaking.
Dale Soules scores big as an authoritative Italian widow, while Erin Felgar is a class standout as her smart and sexy Florentine daughter Diana. Susannah Schulman does well as her sassy friend Mariana, and Helmar Augustus Cooper gives profundo voice and humor as Lafew.
Stylistically, the show is set in late ’40s Europe — though with wars still raging in Italy apparently. But at least it gives an opportunity for some chic costumes by Mike Floyd. Other than the groom-picking dance, the show’s other musical numbers — Matthew Suttor supplied the music and arrangements — fit more gracefully within the play.
They offer a lighter mood, smooth transition and artful (though sometimes too obvious) placement of the country-hopping scenes in Zane Pihlstrom’s handsome unit set, warmly lit by Matthew Frey. There’s a nice ensemble feel to all the men (and a few women) in the army battalion in this well-spoken 21-person cast. They sing beautifully, too.
The production underwent a change of directors halfway through rehearsals when original helmer James Bundy needed heart surgery and F.O.Y. (Friend of Yale) Mark Rucker stepped in. Perhaps that’s why it doesn’t quite have a completely formed and realized feel, especially in the first act. Still, for a famous problem play where grief, honor and love swirl in a heady and often unsettling mix, it’s very easy to take and ends well enough.