GOING TO ST. IVES: Lee Blessing’s canvas may be small, but his concerns are global.
Welcome back to the director’s chair, Tina Packer. The Lenox-based Shakespeare & Company’s artistic director, who’s spent the past few summers on the thespian side of the footlights, returns to playing boss lady with a vigorous, ultimately magical All’s Well That Ends Well (in repertory through August 31) that, if it doesn’t solve all the problems of the Bard’s “problem play,” at least hides them under musical bridges. Realizing that one of the play’s settings, Roussillon in the south of France, is where the troubadour movement of the Middle Ages was born, Packer turns the Countess of Rossillion’s cynical clown, Lavache, into the play’s “resident troubadour” — albeit one whose bluesy growl suggests Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen more than a mediæval minstrel. In the aging-rock-star persona of Nigel Gore, he fronts the 20 musical numbers, some drawn from Shakespeare’s texts, that are the glue connecting the play’s comedy, tragedy, fairy tale, and masochistic romance
So what are All’s Well’s bugaboos? For starters, its fanatically determined heroine, Helena, is in love with a jerk. The low-born lass, daughter of a famous physician but brought up in the Countess’s court, has set her cap at the Countess’s callow, snobbish son, Bertram, who’s described by critic Harold Bloom as “a spoiled brat” and “authentically noxious.” The excuse for Bertram — for those who care to make one — is that his insensitivities are those of youth and that he’s ultimately transformed. (Never mind that, moments before the happy ending, he’s been lying his head off.) Packer casts not a Zac Efron but 40-year-old — albeit handsome and dashing — Jason Asprey in the role. But she does begin the play with a prescient bit of horseplay in which childhood chums Helena and Bertram engage in some mock fencing — until by accident he wounds her, leaving a red blot on her white camisole and a bewildered look on her face.
Neither, for all the jumping-up-and-down charm of Kristin Villanueva, is the monomaniacal Helena a flawless heroine. The character’s an Elizabethan case study for Smart Women, Foolish Choices, stubbornly affixing her affections to the shallow Bertram — though, to her credit, she realizes the match is not likely: “ ’Twere all one/That I should love a bright particular star/And think to wed it, he is so above me.” Then, when she cures the King of France of a “fistula” and claims Bertram as her prize, only to be brutally rejected, she turns so crafty you’d think she’d taken manipulation lessons from Measure for Measure’s “duke of dark corners” — even resorting to the Boccaccio-borrowed “bed trick,” a sexual bait-and-switch that figures in both plays.
In Packer’s view, the play holds together for its first half and then shatters into a hastily assembled Shakespearean hodge-podge with echoes of several superior efforts. If so, she plays the borrowings for all they’re worth. Bertram has a hanger-on called Parolles — a preening, boastful captain whose cascading blond wig, thigh-high red waders, and flowing scarves here recall Malvolio’s yellow stockings and cross garters in Twelfth Night. As Parolles, Kevin O’Donnell nibbles the scenery with many a foppish fillip. But when the character gets his comeuppance, his cowardice cruelly unmasked, Packer and O’Donnell home in on both the hilarity and the sadness of the humiliation. “Simply the thing I am/Shall make me live,” he says, recalling Lear’s observations regarding Poor Tom.
And Packer mines the wonder of the yet-to-be-written The Winter’s Tale for the restoration of Helena, who, without a co-conspirator, brings herself back from the dead to forgive a flawed spouse. Despite my mistrust of Bertram’s about-face, the scene, played against a guitar-backed ballad of redemption, brought tears to my eyes. Packer does not do things by halves, and at this moment neither does Asprey, who dissolves into a childlike display of raw emotion that may, paradoxically, signal maturity.
“The web of our life,” comments a character in the play, “is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.” You might say the same of the play. Yet in Packer’s production, the mingled yarns are knit, both by resident composer Bill Barclay’s rock music, which runs from tough to sweet, and by the director’s characteristic embrace of her main man, even when he’s not in top form.
If Lee Blessing were to paint Guernica, it might be on a napkin. The playwright’s canvases are small but his concerns are global — as his best-known work attests, the 1988 Tony-nominated A Walk in the Woods, in which a pair of US/Soviet arms negotiators take time away from the table for the cordial perambulation of the title. In the 1996 Going to St. Ives, which was presented Off Broadway in 2005 and is now being given a compelling read at Gloucester Stage (through August 3), the two characters from disparate walks of life are women. It’s as if Blessing had provided A Walk in the Woods with the equivalent of Neil Simon’s female Odd Couple, except that the concerns are weightier than who’s sloppy and who’s not.