by News Editor Chris Rogers
Helena should have wound up with one of the Dumaine brothers. She is way too good for Bertram. I’m talking, of course, about Great River Shakespeare Festival’s “All’s Well That Ends Well,” and I’m firmly on Team Anyone But Bertram.
At the start of the play, the orphan Helena is secretly in love with Bertram. He’s a high-born count, and she is his lowly servant. So it doesn’t seem like that’s going to work out until Helena miraculously cures the King of a deadly illness and the King grants her one wish.
To their credit, the actors elicited gut reactions from me throughout the play. When Helena (Caroline Amos) tries to lift the ailing King (Zach Curtis) from his wheelchair, I was honestly concerned. “Is he going to be OK?” After Helena makes her wish, Bertram (Christopher Peltier) defies the furious King and spurns Helena, who can only watch with heartbreak and horror. The scene is pure gold. When Helena turns to the audience after her rejection, I had to stifle my reaction. It was like watching a puppy get a thorn stuck in its paw and not being able to do anything about it.
In the theatrical version of being called up from the minor leagues, apprentice actor Sam Biatch filled in for Melissa Maxwell to play the fairly major role of the Countess of Rossillion (a.k.a. Bertram’s mom). Biatch did a great job. Too bad her character’s son is such a terrible person.
GRSF’s rendition does complicate Bertram’s character, and my friend had a totally different outlook on the play. Bertram does some bad things, yes, but Helena is so manipulative. Bertram is just a pawn in her schemes; maybe it’s him we should feel sorry for, my friend suggested. My friend is crazy.
Still, our post-play debate illustrates how — even though it’s technically a comedy — “All’s Well” is full of drama and weighty questions. After betraying someone, is there anything you can do to redeem yourself? Can we really forgive and forget?
Amid these moral dilemmas, it is reassuring to know that even in Shakespeare’s time there were arrogant bros. This season of GRSF has some great ones that we audience members can love to hate, including Andrew Carlson’s Lord Wessex in “Shakespeare in Love” and Christopher Gerson’s Parolles in “All’s Well.” Watching Curtis and Michael Fitzpatrick skewer Gerson’s puffed up character is eminently entertaining. But even if he is an obnoxious blowhard, Parolles is a survivor. Curiously, he winds up being one of the most likable characters in a play about bad decisions that turn out alright.