All's Well That Ends Well

In 7 Towers Theatre's staging of the Bard's tragicomedy, comic relief is never too far behind the tense moments

Grim interrogation: (l-r) Trace Pope, Stephen Andrew Cook, Heath Thompson, David J. Boss, and Robert Stevens
Grim interrogation: (l-r) Trace Pope, Stephen Andrew Cook, Heath Thompson, David J. Boss, and Robert Stevens (Courtesy of 7 Towers Theatre)

All's Well That Ends Well

Dougherty Arts Center, 1110 Barton Springs Rd.
Through Aug. 3
Running time: 2 hr., 25 min.

In an intimate setting that is neither grungy gold à la Salvage Vanguard Theater nor slick black Cadillac like the Long Center's Rollins Theatre, 7 Towers Theatre Company presents one of the Bard's underdog comedies. All's Well That Ends Well isn't among the most celebrated in Shakespeare's comedic oeuvre, perhaps because it's generally considered a tragicomedy, and thus there's some gray area that may take audiences by surprise.

Setting this piece during World War I, director Christina Gutierrez incorporates period-appropriate radio broadcasts to set the mood and help audiences understand the setting and relationships between France and Germany (Italy in the original). Against this backdrop of war, Helena (Sara Cormier) wishes to marry Bertram (Trace Pope), who's been raised as her brother. However, since she lacks royal blood, he believes her a poor match and refuses to have her. With this, we see the playwright revisiting the theme of free will in the choice of a mate vs. a wedding that will secure political alliances and produce royal heirs.

Cormier, last seen as Desdemona in Austin Shakespeare's Othello (and a dead ringer for Sarah Jessica Parker), receives the award for best profile among Austin's young Shakespeareans. It's curious, then, that Gutierrez and costume designer Stephanie Dunbar conspired to make Cormier look so dowdy (though if she'd been any more lovely, perhaps we'd have branded her errant lover Bertram as just plain crazy – so foreign to modern audiences is the concept of marriage as strictly business).

If there is one reason to see this show, it's Sam Mercer as Lavach. Rocking back and forth on his heels, tracing the lapels of his ridiculously flamboyant red suit, he's the greatest clown I've ever seen on a stage, although it should be noted that he's a fool only at a woman's service and "a knave at a man's." Gutierrez wisely plays up the character's bawdy aspect without muddying the waters with too much slapstick.

Executing another commanding performance is David J. Boss as Parolles. He is, well, the boss. The moment he takes the stage, the integrity of the entire cast is bumped up a notch or two. Although some scenes make us wince – as when he is taken a prisoner and his head covered with a burlap bag, recalling the execution videos of terrorists – comic relief is never too far behind in this mixed-genre work. Indeed, much tension is released and the audience explodes in nervous laughter when Robert Stevens' soldier shouts "Wiener schnitzel!" in an absurd but excellent moment of German outrage.

Is all that ends well truly well? Not exactly. As in life, there is too much middle ground. "But even the very middle of my heart," says Imogen in Shakespeare's Cymbeline, "Is warm'd by the rest, and takes it thankfully."

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Austin theatre, All's Well That Ends Well, 7 Towers Theatre, Christina Gutierrez, Sam Mercer, David J. Boss, Sara Cormier, Trace Pope, Robert Stevens, Stephanie Dunbar

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