Uncommon Shakespeare on the Common

All’s Well That Ends Well? Isn’t that a risky, odd choice of a play for Shakespeare on the Common to stage this year? Perhaps it’s yet another gratifying sign that these days the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company looks refreshed after years of reports of its imminent demise. The annual Shakespeare on the Common performance run is one of the top arts events that this city does so perfectly, up there with the Fourth of July Pops on the Esplanade, First Night, and the Boston Book Festival. And yet there were those infamous days where the Citi Performing Arts Center kept threatening to throw it aside like Prince Harry did Falstaff, where Comedy of Errors was performed because it was the Bard’s shortest play, and where shoestring budgets threatened to put an Othello-like chokehold on its future. Surely, without the heroically dedicated guiding hand of founding artistic director, Steven Maler, this Boston institution would’ve done an Ophelia and drowned itself in the Charles River.

Okay, enough with the lame, half-assed Shakespeare references: The fact is that Shakespeare will be back on the Common for its 16th season. The CSC organization has a fleshed-out staff; it boasts sponsors like Xfinity, the Mandarin Oriental, the Ovation cable channel, and the John W. Henry Family Foundation; it’s had an expanded program performing love scenes from Shakespeare plays in parks around the city all summer; and even the Common experience itself will be rounded out with a new “merchant village” that will sell you decent food should you forget to pack the picnic basket.

So, back to All’s Well That Ends Well: The phrase certainly sounds familiar to anyone, but in fact, it’s one of the least performed plays in Shakespeare’s folio. I’ve only read it, and I found it jarring, if intriguing. That’s because it’s one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” where tragedy and comedy commingle, important characters die, and the lead male role is mostly unlikeable, but it still bears the brisk wit of any Shakespeare and a classic “bed-trick” plot of misplaced identities. Put simplistically, a doctor’s daughter named Helena pines for her unrequited love, a spoiled nobleman named Bertram. Bertram leaves town to serve the King of France and join the Florentine wars, and he thinks he sets an impossibly high bar by telling Helena that he refuses to marry her unless she removes his family’s ancestral ring from his hand and also bears his child, even though he has no intentions of bedding her. Needless to say, these obstacles are no match for the will and determination of Helena.

Cribbed from one of Boccaccio’s tales in The Decameron, All’s Well has an oddly distancing air about it on the page. Perhaps that’s why for the first 200 years after it was written, theaters dressed up the productions with extra dancing and music. And yet Harvard professor Marjorie Garber notes in her magisterial survey Shakespeare After All that the roles of Helena and Bertram’s mother, the Countess of Roussillon, are tremendous roles for an actress, being “brilliant, complicated, strong women who, finding themselves in impossible situations, emerge not only whole, but triumphant.” In fact, Garber writes, “If it ‘ends well’ for them and less well for Bertram, perhaps it is simply because the play validates their wishes not his.” Based on this estimation then, I’m quite interested to see what Karen MacDonald brings to the Countess role, and particularly Kersti Bryan as Helena.

But most of all, I’m interested to see how CSC stages a play whose plot pretty much says that we humans can be happy and sad and confused and misguided and yet triumphant, sometimes even when we’re being dishonest to get what we want. Hey, it’s a thorny play. Apparently New York’s Shakespeare in the Park smoothed out these edges in its production of All’s Well, which is a shame. With a new, refreshed, emboldened CSC setting out on a summer series that eschews the usual parade of Romeos, Pucks, and Hamlets, it’ll be wonderful to see them refresh interest in this play as well by staying true to its barbed heart.

All’s Well that Ends Well runs from July 27 to August 14 at the Parkman Bandstand, Boston Common. Performances are at 8pm Tuesdays through Saturdays, and at 7pm on Sundays; the play is 2 hours and 45 minutes long.

Marquee photograph courtesy of the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company