ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL Ends Well at the Dixon Gallery & Gardens


All's Well That Ends Well is a holiday treat. Maybe it's not the most ambitious work the Tennessee Shakespeare Company has ever done, but to borrow from Duke Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream, "Nothing can be amiss when simpleness and duty tender it." Of course the Duke's line was originally inspired by ridiculous amateur theatrics and functions as a kind of Elizabethan, "Bless their hearts." But he's speaking in earnest, and so am I. Pressed to choose only two words to describe director Dan McCleary's vision for this rarely-produced play, "simpleness" and "duty" would make the short list alongside "clarity," "competence," "charm," and "confidence."
Helena (Lydia Barnett-Mulligan) heals the King (Joey Shaw) in Tennessee Shakespeare Company's production of ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL directed by Dan McCleary now running through December 20 at Dixon Gallery & Gardens. For ticket and more information: 759-0604, - PHOTO: JOEY MILLER.
  • Helena (Lydia Barnett-Mulligan) heals the King (Joey Shaw) in Tennessee Shakespeare Company's production of ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL directed by Dan McCleary now running through December 20 at Dixon Gallery & Gardens. For ticket and more information: 759-0604,

Detailed Medieval(ish) costumes are mildly at odds with flat, cartoon-like backgrounds loosely inspired by the work of illustrator Maxfield Parrish. Stage movement and performances seem equally two dimensional, especially when one considers TSC's bolder work, and the company's proclivity for stopping a narrative cold to flesh out fight scenes or to explore Shakespeare's more musical tendencies. None of this is complaint. McCleary and company have taken a disarming "stand and deliver" approach to unfamiliar material that proves effective over time, as the story builds on itself and momentum gathers. Lovingly framed by Barry Gilmore's percussive celtic string arrangements, the overall effect is less like ensemble acting and more like group storytelling.

Lydia Barnett-Mulligan is relentlessly chipper and full of life as Helen, a lowborn orphan with healing powers, who's determined to get and keep her man Bertram, no matter how grotesque and unworthy he proves himself. (More about the plot here). Barnett-Mulligan is supported by Stephanie Shine as a grounded Spanish Countess and mother figure to Helen, Jeanna Juleson as the widow Capilet,  and Caitlin McWethy as the spunky Diana, who helps Helen trick her inconstant husband Bertram into bed. 

Joey Shaw lacks gravity as the ailing French king Helen heals and wins over. And it's hard to know what our heroine might see in Bradley Karel's vanilla Bertram. But McCleary gets fun performances from Isaac Anderson as the puffed up braggart Parolles, and from Brian Sheppard as Lavatch, one of Shakespeare's naughtier fools. As Lafew, Stuart Heyman proves that the best laughs sometimes go to the straight man.  

It's a bit disconcerting that only two of many presumably French-speaking characters use over-the-top accents, while the rest of the cast use no accents at all. Obviously somebody thought it would be fun to model Shakespeare's Parisian soldiers after the insult-hurling knights in Monty Python's The Holy Grail. It's a good bit in and of itself, and nicely acted, but incongruous and a wee bit confusing in a play that moves from Spain to Paris, to Italy, and back again with lighting changes, but no significant shifts in scenery.

All's Well ends better than it begins. Not because it begins badly, but because there's a lot to establish and it takes some time to get this neoclassical train rolling. Though darkly comic in tone, the show is sometimes described as a "problem play" due to formal irregularities that make it hard to categorize. What's fascinating is how much more modern and accessible Shakespeare's infrequently produced "problems" can seem compared to the more straightforward comedies and tragedies.

I've seldom known a theater that wasn't on the lookout for scripts with strong female ensembles. So why is  All's Well That Ends Well performed so rarely? Obviously, it's not taught in schools like the tragic masterworks. It's not as action packed as A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night or As You Like It. It lack's the philosophical heft of Measure for Measure and the comic gender feuds found in Much Ado About Nothing and Taming of the Shrew. As epic fairy tales go it pales next to The Tempest, A Winter's Tale, and Cymbeline. But the best bits from many of these plays are are either anticipated or echoed in All's Well That Ends Well. To ice the confection, Shakespeare places not one, but a clutch of strong women, front and center. And he populates their richly dysfunctional world with weak, violent, sexually arrested men-children who are always looking for a place to stick their swords. To that end, it plays out like a counterpoint to Aristophanes' sexually explicit anti-war farce, Lysistrata whose title character ends her reign of terrible abstinence with the declaration, "All's well that ends well." It may not be the Bard's most compelling adventure, but it's a witty thing, and delightfully inappropriate.

Catch All's Well That Ends Well at the Dixon while you can. History suggests it will be quite some time before another opportunity presents itself. 

For times and ticket information, here's your click


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