CHICAGO—It’s considered one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, which is why the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, always appreciating a challenge, decided to mount “All’s Well That Ends Well.”
Why is it considered a problem play? Because it presents characters who are seriously flawed, but that is also what makes it a comedy. In fact, if the characters weren’t as flawed as they are, the play wouldn’t be as funny.
Those flaws, though, under Shana Cooper’s insightful direction, are happily overcome. Indeed, this revival is so entertaining and humorous that its problems can easily be discounted.
The plot, which was taken by Shakespeare from a tale in Boccaccio’s Decameron (1349–1353) and written by him around 1602, is a simple story in which the girl chases the boy.
Helen is a young woman madly in love with Bertram, an aristocrat. She is the daughter of a well-known doctor but that’s not enough for Bertram to take an interest in her, especially since he believes that she belongs to a lower social class. Helen, though, is not deterred.
Indeed, maybe Bertram’s rejection of her makes her want him more. Since Shakespeare was such a keen observer of human nature, he realized that one of the qualities of human frailty is that forbidden fruit is often more appealing than that which we can easily obtain.
Helen is so determined to marry Bertram that she follows him to the court of the King of France. She convinces the king, who is very sick, that she can cure him of his illness with one of her physician father’s potions.
She succeeds in restoring the king to health, and in return he allows Helen to choose any husband she wants. She picks Bertram, who refuses her, which angers the king, and has Bertram fleeing the court to join the military.
Shakespeare gives the character of Helen one of the best lines in the play: “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie.” She believes she is in control of her own fate and has the power over her destiny.
Bertram, however, is a more difficult personality. His father has died, and the young man is so lost that he makes one bad choice after another. Of course, since this is not a tragedy but a comedy, Bertram and Helen come together by play’s end.
It’s also a delightful show because of its enchanting stagecraft.
The action takes place against a minimalist backdrop of chandeliers, and lovely curtains of aqua and white by set designer Andrew Boyce. The lighting by Adam Honoré bathes the show in a golden hue, and the music and sound by Paul James Prendergast give a fairytale feel to the production. Adding to that is Raquel Barreto’s modern-day costuming in which men wear tailored business suits and battle fatigues, and women are in gowns and dresses.
The most compelling moments of the show, though, are the energetic poetry-in-motion scenes. Choreographer Stephanie Martinez comes through with original dance sequences, representing an army drilling, marching, and in battle, which are riveting.
Another reason for the success of this revival is due to its ensemble of players. Alejandra Escalante is terrific as the plucky, determined Helen who is going to get her man no matter how much rejection she has to face. She has us on her side from the moment she looks up at Bertram with puppy-dog eyes and a wistful sigh in his presence.
Dante Jemmott as Bertram is believable, but it’s a bit more difficult to root for his character since he is a snob and a cad, until almost the end of the play when he finally gives in to Helen.
Bertram’s mother, the Countess of Rossillion, is given a wonderful turn by Ora Jones, who is always a treasure in every work she is in. She shines especially with the memorable “Love all, trust a few, Do wrong to none.”
In addition, there’s the always charismatic Francis Guinan as the King; Mark Bedard as the fast-talking, flamboyant Parolles, a friend of Bertram; Elizabeth Ledo who is a hoot as Lavatch, the Countess’s jokester; and William Dick, as a suffer-no-fools-gladly Lord.
By the time the curtain comes down you will have had such an enjoyable time that you will have forgotten that “All’s Well That Ends Well” is supposed to be a problem play.
‘All’s Well That Ends Well’
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
800 E. Grand Ave. on Navy Pier, Chicago
For information: 312.595-5600 or visit ChicagoShakes.com
Runs: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Closes: May 29, 2022