Some of the shortcomings in the famously problematic “All’s Well That Ends Well” — with its pushy heroine, caddish hero and nasty bed-trick leading to forced marriage — are addressed in this Old Globe production by exploiting the mystique of Italy, European youth’s staging ground for wars both military and romantic. Following in the footsteps of E.M. Forster (“A Room With a View”) and Elizabeth Von Arnim (“Enchanted April”), helmer Darko Tresnjak shapes a shimmering summery environment in which love can triumph in the unlikeliest of circumstances. This “All’s Well” ends well for characters and audience alike.
Tale derived from ribald, wry Boccaccio begins in a stiff-collared France in mourning for the revered Count Rossillion, a prison from which son Bertram (Graham Hamilton) yearns to break free. Understandably so, given Ralph Funicello’s gloomy 1910 drawing room stuffed with enough pouffes, tchotchkes and potted ferns to outfit several productions of “Charley’s Aunt.”
Tresnjak puts his props-heavy Victorian setting to expressive use, with the lowborn Helena (Kimberly Parker Green) holding a small Michelangelo’s David statuette like a long-desired Oscar as she describes her secret, unthinkable passion for Bertram.
Meanwhile, reverent treatment of his father’s ring hints at the ancestral nobility that the callow Bertram may yet harbor. Is Helena sorceress enough to bring it out?
Helena travels to Paris to cure the terminally ill King of France (James R. Winker, impressively regal in infirmity); the intriguingly incantatory approach that Green’s Helena takes to the reluctant king suggests St. Joan, the straight-talking commoner who harangues everyone into doing her bidding. Yet while she loses her plain-Jane glasses and braids to glow in the wake of her miracle cure, she can’t immediately perform the real miracle of persuading the lusty, snobbish Bertram — the King’s grateful “gift” — to fall for her.
Egged on by braggart parasite Parolles (Bruce Turk), Bertram is off to the Italian wars (good luck figuring out who’s fighting whom), the determined loveless bride in hot pursuit.
Funicello pulls away the back wall to represent regenerative Florence by a tree in full healthy foliage, before which a giant nude David on the upper stage serenely approves the secular, carnal doings in the al fresco cafe below. Linda Cho’s heavy mourning duds are whisked away in favor of elegant boaters, light linens and pastels, and Christopher Walker’s exceptional music shifts from dirges to genial folk songs.
Anyone would want to live here forever, and the stage is set for complex intrigues revealing hidden, uncomfortable truths to bring fated lovers together and right a topsy-turvy world.
While the complicated story is lucidly told, Tresnjak’s desire to make the Italian comedy zing seems to have led to some droopiness in the dramatic sections. Green’s Helena coasts on smug normality upon arrival in Florence, while Hamilton’s heavy-handed verse-speaking and unfettered emotionality aren’t ripe enough to maintain a handle on an unripe antagonist.
As Bertram’s mother — one of Shakespeare’s richest, most quicksilver female roles — Kandis Chappell is disappointingly directed into one-dimensional gravity. By contrast, Vivia Font shines with warmth and intelligence as Diana, a buxom local wench who’s besieged by Bertram but bests him in the end.
Turk’s popinjay Parolles gets his laughs without indulging in phony slapstick, ideally matched with Charles Janasz’s perfectly spoken, perfectly delightful Lord Lafew, the weasel’s unmasker and eventual unlikely ally.
Janasz and Turk make the most of their important subplot and leave us wanting more. One side note: In our nicotine-free age, production’s selective but unembarrassed employment of tobacco is a bracing reminder of cigarettes’ wonderful utility for character revelation, both in action and in repose. Where are Paul Henreid and his “Now, Voyager” smokes when we need them?
Show runs in rep with “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor” well past Labor Day.