Sometimes, smart people fall for blockheads.
It’s the stuff of telenovelas, romantic comedies, reality shows, and, yes, even Shakespeare.
Poor Helena, the heroine of “All’s Well That Ends Well” — now getting a rollicking production kicking off the 27th season of Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival in Garrison — is just such a character. She lost her doctor father, became the ward of the rich countess and fell in love with Bertram, the countess’ skirt-chasing twit of a son who doesn’t recognize a good thing when he sees one.
What’s a poor girl to do?
If she’s our determined Helena, she goes to France, cures the king, wins his admiration and the choice of any husband, chooses Bertram, marries him and then is spurned by the lunkhead before the marriage can be consummated. Bertram, taking the advice of his poseur pal Parolles, chooses to go to war rather than to warm their marital bed.
Does Helena then take no for an answer? Helle-no!
She follows him to Italy and manages to turn his philandering back on him, tricking him at his own game and, ultimately, winning him over.
But what, exactly, has she won in the end? The victory seems hollow at best. She deserves better.
If “All’s Well That Ends Well” fails to fully satisfy, the Hudson Valley Shakespeare production — directed by Russell Treyz, who helmed last summer’s “The 39 Steps” — delivers a fast, funny and memorable evening overlooking the Hudson highlands.
Treyz’s decision to cast one woman (the luminous Jessica Frey as Helena), and seven men (in all the other roles, male and female), further isolates Helena. She is a woman outnumbered in a man’s world. Treyz presents the eight actors as a traveling troupe, complete with prop and costume trunks. His pre-show musical choices — from “Chain of Fools” to “Love Me Do” to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” — reveal character before the show has officially begun, a wonderful sort of overture. Rebecca Lustig’s costumes capture France, Florence and Marseilles “in days of yore.”
Frey’s Helena is a take-no-prisoners kind of woman. Her love may hold ambitions above her station, but she is no shrinking violet, scooting the King of France over on his throne to make her case. Her wiles charm the sovereign (the pitch-perfect Richard Ercole) but fail to melt the heart of Bertram, played with a frustratingly effective mix of smugness, impetuosity and fickleness by festival newcomer Dan Tracy.
Jason O’Connell plays the braggadocios windbag Parolles for laughs — the scene in which he attempts to do himself harm with a butter knife is hilarious — but he also finds his character’s true heart in a stirring display of emotion late in the action. It is the most genuine emotion of the evening, not based on a love misplaced, but on a heart restored to life.
The men in dresses run the gamut, from Dan Matisa’s rather straight countess to Wesley Mann’s over-the-top Widow to Jeff Gonzalez, who plays the Widow’s daughter, Diana, as a woman wronged. Each has his-her charms.
Mann, the festival’s clown prince, also plays the old lord Lafew, and Lavatch, a rustic clown who — in a wonderful bit of staging demonstrating Mann’s considerable powers — carry on a conversation with each other. One actor, two characters, one funny conversation not to be missed.
“All’s Well’s That Ends Well,” Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, at Boscobel Restoration, Route 9D, Garrison. In repertory with “The Three Musketeers” and “King Lear” through Sept. 1. See playing schedule at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival website. $27 to $75. Package discounts available. 845-265-9575. Note: Boscobel’s grounds open two hours before curtain for picnicking.
Did you know? Hudson Valley has changed its playing surface under the tent, covering the well-worn earth with a layer of packed sand like that used in equestrian rings. It makes for a more even and softer stage and surer footing.
Photos by William Marsh: Top, Jessica Frey and Dan Tracy are Helena and Bertram. Second, Richard Ercole is the King of France and Jessica Frey is Helena.