"All’s Well That Ends Well" as a Fairly Told Fairy Tale
A review by Eleanor Svaton
When women work together to a common end... watch out, boys, you don’t stand a chance. This could be the moral of William Shakespeare’s play All’s Well That Ends Well. Or... A woman with her heart set on something knows no limitations. Or... A lustful woman is the most dangerous thing a man can face. Or even: A good man, when he is mastered by the right woman, becomes great. There are many ways to interpret this Shakespearean play with a woman as the main character. This is her story. In its current iteration as the premiere production of the 17th annual Hawaii Shakespeare Festival, co-founder and festival producer Tony Pisculli offers a rather pleasant interpretation of one of the Bard’s more challenging comedies, but with little in the way of a discernible moral, which is maybe his point.
All’s Well That Ends Well focuses on the orphan daughter of a brilliant doctor, Helena, whose desire compels her to procure its object regardless of the means. For many critics of the play, the ends do not, perhaps, justify the means, and all does not truly end, perhaps, quite as well as it seems. It’s a bit of a reverse Taming of the Shrew or an anti Romeo and Juliet, or quite likely a counter-narrative to both, having been written and first performed nearly a decade after those plays, at the very end of the reign of Elizabeth the First. Unlike its two aforementioned predecessors, All’s Well portrays a deeply impassioned one-sided love, unrequited (like Romeo’s for Rosalind--if only Helena happened upon a Juliet-o to supplant her obsession with Bertram--er, wait, that didn’t end well at all), until the woman can “tame” her object (as Petruchio does Kate, another problematic happily ever after). Yet while Shrew and R&J are two of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, All’s Well hangs somewhere way down near the bottom of the list. People don’t seem to want to deal with a character like Helena and the consummating act of her plot to get the man she wants.
Pisculli’s production interprets this story as a Disneyesque fairy tale, replete with catchy, beautifully sung ballads (with sound design and original songs by Sean-Joseph Choo), magical special effects (lighting design by Cora Yamagata), entertaining caricatures, exquisite and delightful costumes (Rose Wolfe) and the requisite happy ending. The attempt is a thoroughly enjoyable success that lives up to the title of the play and the standards of the fairy tale genre.
The story is engagingly told: the acting and language are clear and captivating, with expressions and delivery as overtly emotive as you’d expect from a live Shakes-Disney musical. The Disneyfication also heightens the presence of pre-existing stock characters and tropes. Andy Valencia is sumptuous as the plotting not-so-evil stepmother of Helena (Stephanie Keiko Kong), a saccharine sweet, pathetically driven love-struck puppy of a girl. The King of France, played by Linda Johnson, is comedic gold early in the play as an afflicted ancient artifact, followed by a transformation reminiscent of the resurrection of King Théoden by Gandalf in The Two Towers. Finally, Maile Kapua`ala enchants and offends with panache in her swashbucklingly hilarious yet sympathetic portrayal of Parolles. Pisculli’s all-female productions are a product and result of the fact that Hawai`i is overflowing with ladies ready to take on any role as well or better than a man can. (Full disclosure: I’m a little biased in this case, having been part of several of those productions in the past.)
The original songs and music heighten the emotion and add to the sensory pleasure. Kong sounds like a Broadway star with every belted note. The frequency of the musical numbers are few and all are delightful, though the transformation from comedy to musicaI feels slightly incomplete, especially in the second half. A group number by the chorus of soldiers to illuminate the subplot having to do with the humiliation of Parolles, for example, could have been fun.
Like most Disney tales, the hidden, lurking “problems” in the plot are swept under the proverbial flying carpet, with the complexity of human relations simplified by superficial character portrayals. They all, presumably, live happily ever after. Pisculli, in his Director’s Note, invites the audience to “enjoy the happy ending, if that is your preference” while also allowing the freedom to see the production as “an ironic commentary on the state of Disney musicals.” While both points of view make sense based on this production, the possibility of interrogating the text more poignantly is lost.
The character of Helena is more complex and disturbing to me than your average Disney princess, and therefore more intriguing--part Ariel, part Ursula--heroine and villain. She is a young woman fanatically obsessed with the object of her desire, and extremely resourceful in refusing to believe that her destiny could be anything other than Bertram--willing to go to any length, to enlist any ally, to commit any act in order to succeed. In this production, however, she is a sweet, determined girl who will do anything for love, and Bertram (Claire Fallon), as the easily manipulated young royal, frustrated by his stifled ambition, seems about as dumb as most Disney pretty boys. Their depths are left unplumbed so that in the end, as the magic of the theatre fades away, so does one’s recollection of them, for such characters are not much worth further consideration. Fairy tale characters exist to represent ideals, whereas Shakespearean characters--and all the best Disney characters--are meant to represent the complexity of the human condition.