I think of Measure for Measure, with its fanatically chaste heroine, and All's Well That Ends Well, with its lovely lass in pursuit of a lout, as Shakespeare's "Smart Women, Foolish Choices" plays. In the case of All's Well, this year's Commonwealth Shakespeare Company offering of free Bard on Boston Common (at the Parkman Bandstand through August 14), Helena is an attractive young woman with a healing touch who sets her cap for a callow, insensitive aristo-cad too arrogant to love her. In the end, she has to trick him into deflowering her in "the pitchy night" — and the play's happy ending seems just as shady.
PROBLEM COMEDY This artful production refuses to gloss over the darker side of Shakespeare’s tale about an enterprising woman who will stop at nothing to get a guy not worth having.
Given the ironies that abound, All's Well seems an audacious choice for an outdoor production necessarily aimed at an audience of thousands and not therefore a candidate for subtlety. (CSC, however, is not so bold as New York's Public Theatre, which is performing both All's Well and Measure for Measure in Central Park this summer.) Surprisingly, then, Steven Maler helms an artfully melancholy, deftly ambiguous staging that ameliorates without glossing over the disturbing underlayment of this tale of an enterprising woman who will stop at nothing to get a guy not worth having. It helps that the director fields in newcomer Kersti Bryan an excellent Helena — gangly, lovesick, regal, self-deprecating, and well-spoken — and that comic talents more familiar to fans of the annual CSC fest, including Fred Sullivan Jr., Larry Coen, and Remo Airaldi, prove once again that they are masters of Shakespearean shenanigan.
Of course, to buoy up the romance and ratchet down what critic Harold Bloom finds "rancid" in All's Well, it's necessary to whitewash the meanness of Helena's connubial prey, Bertram (a rakish but not entirely unsympathetic Nick Dillenburg), whom Samuel Johnson dubs a "coward" and a "profligate" and Bloom calls "a spoiled brat" and "authentically noxious." Indeed, the production begins with Bertram prostrate over his noble father's coffin; this image widens to encompass a somber Victorian funeral through which the newly minted Count of Rossillion soldiers with grieved dignity. He's not really a heartless, petulant piece of work, just a confused young man who misses Daddy.
The play proper begins with Karen MacDonald's refreshingly feisty Countess of Rossillion bidding farewell to not only her deceased husband but also her son. Now a ward of the King of France (an intimidating Will LeBow), Bertram must be off to court, leaving both mother and his childhood playmate, Helena, bereft. The orphan offspring of an eminent physician, Helena is like a daughter to the Countess (which leads to some amusing jockeying wherein Helena tries to dodge any incestuous implication this might attach to her fixation on Bertram). She is also the repository of some of her famed father's cures, which enables her, in an effort to follow Bertram to Paris, to offer medical magic to the ailing monarch. When she cures him, he, by prearrangement, offers her the hand of the courtier of her choice. She chooses Bertram, who demurs but is forced to go through with the ceremony — whereupon he bolts for foreign wars, swearing never to consummate his marriage or return to France until his wife disappears.