At least six of William Shakespeare’s plays are considered by scholars and historians to be “problem plays,” often because it is difficult for modern audiences to see them as comedies since their characters travel down very dark roads. (Not all problem plays are in the comedy category, but at least four of them are.) Sometimes the issue in question is so clear it’s notorious: Shylock in The Merchant of Venice comes to mind. But other times the “problem” is that alleged comedies have no happy ending even possible, even if the Bard tries to impose one.
This is the case with All’s Well That Ends Well, and Chicago Shakespeare’s mostly brilliant take on it, directed by Shana Cooper. Cooper’s vision of this tale of a young man, Bertram (Dante Jemmot), who finds himself suddenly without a father and proceeds to make one bad decision after another about how to live his life, is mostly alive and fun and fascinating. Mostly.
Traveling to the court of the dying King of France (Francis Guinan), Bertram hopes to learn what he can about being a gentleman. When a young woman from home (Helen, played with earnestness and energy and—let’s just say it—love by Alejandra Escalante) arrives at court with one of her famous late physician father’s serums that she is certain will cure the King, Bertram’s journey takes a sharp and unforeseen turn. In payment for the cure, the King agrees to allow the young woman to choose her husband from any man in court. The one she has an eye on—has always had an eye on, with his mother’s blessing—is Bertram. When the callous young man absolutely refuses her, citing her lack of Court status, the King offers to raise her up. Bertram’s repeated refusal angers the monarch, whose threats finally get him to agree (while secretly pledging never to step into her bed).
Is there any question why this should be a “problem” play? Helen’s bold and forceful move here can be forgiven because she is a woman without any other source of leverage in this country—and besides, she’s likable, especially as played by the extremely likable Escalante. Bertram, on the other hand, whose judgment is already questionable—he has befriended a man (Parolles, played by the hilarious Mark Bedard) whom everyone but him knows to be a lying, cowardly, manipulative scoundrel—has no such likability to fall back on. His treatment of Helen is so vile that his own mother (the Countess, played powerfully by the indomitable Ora Jones) casts him out of her life when she hears about it. The young man’s decision to sneak off and join the army attacking Italy leads him to a life spent wooing and deflowering virgins, and the audience’s opinion of him sinks ever further…if that is possible.
All of this can still work, depending upon the actor portraying Bertram. If he plays up the aspect of lack of choice—certainly an understandable issue with one so young—and makes Bertram seem otherwise at least a little bit noble, we might accept him. If he, on the contrary, plays up the despicable qualities that Bertram displays to the extent that he comes across as utterly vile or comically overblown, we might hate him but see him as a worthy character, at least until we stop to wonder how on earth Helen can possibly expect to find any happiness with him. “Happily ever after” with him does not seem to be in the cards.
Unfortunately, the casting of CST newcomer Jemmott turns out to be a serious mistake in an otherwise exciting production that features inventively comic choreography and movement by Stephanie Martinez and fun magic by Dendy. It is certainly possible that the young actor was nervous—opening night in his first CST show has to be intimidating—but from what we could see, he just isn’t up to the task of making the audience care in any way about this reprehensible character. He is so low energy that, when he does finally join the soldiers in one of Martinez’s wonderfully loopy marching sequences, it comes as a shock that Bertram even has it in him to move like that. Jemmott’s portrayal is simply flat and uninteresting, especially compared to the dynamic characterizations that surround him. He does not seem to be inhabiting the same show as everyone else.
The other actors playing soldiers are having a great time; every time we encounter them, they are full of energy, laughter, and macho joy. Even the women we meet in Italy—notably the widow Capilet (Christiana Clark) and her daughter Diana (Emma Ladji)—are more alive than Bertram ever is. Clark and Ladji, in fact, are so perfect together that one longs for a show built around them…especially if Jones and Escalante are a part of the package. But even a hilarious sequence in which Parolles is unmasked as a traitorous, cowardly fraud hardly even dents Jemmott’s impassive demeanor. His Bertram is not only impossible to root for; he is impossible to care much about at all.
About the aforementioned magic: Cooper introduces us to Helen’s character through a simple sleight of hand trick that seems like a tiny throwaway bit, but everything escalates when she gets to Paris to cure the King. There, lights flicker and chandeliers swing, indicating the presence of something other. Escalante’s performance even briefly changes: in one short speech, she seems to have been possessed by…something. It’s a great conceit and helps to explain how this girl can possibly cure the King when—as we are told several times—his most learned physicians can do nothing for him.
It’s a Shakespearean “comedy,” so of course, everything works out in the end (in such a lightning-fast scene that it’s hard to understand how it even happens: Shakespeare’s fault, not Cooper’s), but this is one case where the audience may well wish it had not. Still, at least we know that Helen and the Countess are such strong allies that there is no way for Bertram to hurt either one of them. There is so much strength in this production—I haven’t even touched on Andrew Boyce’s set, Raquel Barreto’s costumes, Adam Honore’s lighting, or Paul James Prendergast’s music and sound, not to mention wonderful, rich performances by William Dick and Elizabeth Ledo—that it would be a shame to deny it a recommendation for one flaw (albeit a significant one). In the end, then, I will indeed recommend it…with reservations.
All’s Well That Ends Well plays until May 29. Tickets are available at chicagoshakes.org.