I'm back from All's Well That Ends Well in High Park. I guess my main feeling was they did an ok job of it, but overall they were trying to hard to be hip. I definitely do not agree with the 4 star reviews that some people gave. I tend to be a bit of a traditionalist, and I thought they did a bit too much genre bending. Some of the choices were baffling. Personally, I didn't see nearly as much homosexual bashing in the way that Parolles was "tortured," as several other reviewers did, though what did stand out (and was really an unnecessary and unpleasant twist) was to thrust a gay porno magazine at him (as revealing his true character?) and then when he accepts his role as a fool (rather than as a soldier full of braggadocio) he is given a dress to wear. Pretty uncool if you ask me.
Unfortunately, we were not able to reserve seats for the evening, and got there just a bit late. We ended up on the hill on the far left of the stage. The sight lines were ok, though some of the blocking that was done made it hard to see what was going on when the entire ensemble was on stage. I could hear reasonably well, though my companion felt she missed a lot of the dialogue, so she didn't enjoy the production at all. My problem was the hill had an incredible slant to it, so I spent a lot of time sliding down the hill and pushing myself back up on the blanket. My hip is still a bit sore, and I have a lot of dirt ground into my new shoes.
I knew I would be bothered by the 3 little speeches written by the director to move things along, and I certainly was, especially as they got an unbelievable amount of attention. The clownish character, Lavatch, is a female in this production (and while she keeps talking about how she wants to be rewarded for her service to the Countess by being married off, this must have been one of the subplots that was completely cut). She ends up speaking the new lines (by the director Ted Witzel) as a kind of torch song, just giving them so much undue prominence.
But this is a hard play to like. It relies too much on the bed trick (though maybe it isn't quite as contrived as in Measure for Measure (another problematic play) as Helena (or Helen in this production) at least is officially married to her unwitting partner). It features a smart woman falling hopelessly in love with an unworthy man, is abandoned by him, and tricks him into returning to her side. In this production, Bertram is completely unmoved when he hears of her death (at least in some productions one sees a bit of remorse creep in at this point) and yet seems to have genuine emotions for her once all the machinations are revealed. I didn't feel this was earned at all (by the production), and I didn't believe it for a second. The only thing I could plausibly believe is that Bertram remembered how good she was in the sack back in Florence. I would have had more respect for this production if it had been more honest about the problematic ending instead of trying to make it an upbeat ending. In fact, I much preferred the Much Ado About Nothing production that added some ambiguity and melancholy to what is generally not seen as a problem play to this one trying to somehow smooth out the ending and pretend that Bertram is going to grow into a worthy partner for Helen and thus they live happily ever after.
There were two moments that I did enjoy, both of them having more to do with movement and staging than acting! First, to set the scene for the Florence exploits, the men in their soldiers' garb, push these two large structures towards the middle of the stage, forcing all these chairs ahead of them like a snowplow pushes snow. The chairs end up piled up a bit like the blockade that is a highlight of Les Mis. They also come to a halt just a few feet away from Helen, who is discussing her plans to follow Bertram to Florence, adding just a hint of danger to the proceedings.
Then at the end, when Julia is slowly (far too slowly for my taste) revealing the traps that Helen has laid for Bertram, she and Bertram are circling the front of the stage, and the rest of the ensemble moves in block formation, following their discussion. All of a sudden, the block opens up and Helen is there, back in her wedding dress, to confront Bertram. That was fairly impressive.
Do two very elevated moments and a few sparks of interest here and there justify this production? Probably not. However, I will say it is hard to get anyone to pay any attention to this play (or Measure for Measure). Still, I will be very wary of Witzel in the future, since I think he takes too many liberties with Shakespeare. I can tell from this production and the reviews, that I would have absolutely hated his take on Hamlet, and I am definitely skipping it. So if you are on the fence, I would probably advise skipping Shakespeare in High Park this year. I'm hoping that they come back a bit stronger next year, just as last year was fairly solid.
(I'm still sort of on the fence about the gender bending that happens in Romeo and Juliet over in Withrow Park (reviews here and here), but I'm leaning against going. I was going to take my son to see one of Shakespeare's best-known tragedies, but I just don't want his first experience to be one that is so non-traditional and frankly a bit confused and confusing (and Slotkin confirms this). It would require more explanation than I really feel like going into at this point. Will I go by myself, perhaps on the night they roast marshmallows? Not likely, but perhaps if I feel I have caught up with everything else in my life...)