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Review: This 'All's Well' really does end well

The plays of Shakespeare bubble with vitality four centuries on in part because canny directors continue to tease new resonances out of them. Now Amanda Dehnert and company have pulled off the unlikely coup of making "All's Well That Ends Well" into a comic, feel-good fairy tale/coming-of-age story.

In the new production of this famously problematic play that opened Saturday afternoon in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's intimate New Theatre, Dehnert and scenic Designer Christopher Acebo's stage doesn't so much say Rossillion and Florence so much as someplace fantastical and disturbing. It is a spare, planked, abstract space dominated by a barren tree. Instead of Helena and Bertram, you expect Estragon and Vladimir.

Into this melancholy atmosphere strolls The Clown (Armando Duran), who has been deconstructed and reinvented by Dehnert and Duran. After some comic business in the manner of a mime, The Clown introduces Helena and Bertram's story.

This tells us the play is in the past. And the phrase "Once Upon a Time" tells us we are in the realm of fairy tale.

This represents an all-in gamble by Dehnert. "All's Well" has a deep ambiguity at its heart. On the page, it's romantic mode never gets the upper hand on its deep cynicism, as it would have to in order to achieve the overall comic effect of one of the sunny comedies.

The twist in "All's Well," which Shakespeare stole from Boccaccio's "Decameron," is that instead of boy chasing girl, girl chases boy, almost loses him, finally gets him. But along the way he proves to be a cad of such dimensions that audiences have not simply recoiled from him, they've lowered their estimations of Helena for wanting the jerk.

Under Dehnert's direction, Bertram (Danforth Comins) and even the traitor Parolles (John Tufts) have their sharper edges softened. Although Bertram has no romantic feelings for Helena (Kjerstine Rose Anderson) in the beginning, or indeed at any time until the play's final moments, he is friendly to her at the outset. His later conversion, such as it is, is prefigured early on by his giving her a hanky when she cries, and even a flower. But these are not deeply felt gestures.

Anderson's Helena is plucky, somewhat in the manner of a Shakespeare heroine, but almost myopic, a headlong force of nature in the throes of a monster, glandular crush. She is young and very immature, a would-be Juliet without scope or depth. Where Juliet would speak lyric poetry, Helena contrives the bed trick.

Tufts' Parolles is the miles gloriosus not as a larger-than-life Falstaff but as Woody Allen or Bugs Bunny. It is a very funny and oddly touching performance, especially after his gulling, when a note of pathos comes into the satire.

But in this production the satire is Horatian, rather than Juvenalian, played broadly for gentle laughs. And The Clown keeps reminding us that it's all a story from the past which he's relating in the present.

To underscore the fairy-tale quality, an old projector appears to display silent-film-style intertitles that set up story points and guide us through the scenes. The effect is a bit like that of the actor Edward Everett Horton narrating fractured fairy tales on "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show." The tales might include disturbing elements, but Horton's honeyed voice reassured us that in the end (since we were ipso facto in a time later than the mimetic mode in front of us) the narrative mood would remain sunny.

In its naturalism and ambiguity, and through the character of the proto-feminist Helena, "All's Well" made Shaw think of Ibsen. In this light perhaps Bertram and Helena are the forerunners of generations of anti-heroes. Dehnert seems to have no problem with Bertram's macho self-centeredness. We fall in love with whom we fall in love with, she gleefully suggests, for better or worse. We mess up our lives and struggle and scheme to put things as right as we can. As The Clown says, "The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together ... "

It's a mixed bag. In the end, clever staging by Dehnert and acting by Comins suggest a redemption for Bertram that's not exactly in the script, just as the fairy tale demands. The result is nothing less than an interpretation of a problem play as a sunny fairy tale. Shakespearean strict constructionists may hate it.

Dehnert's story suggests that even a screwed-up ending may be a new beginning. She's made some bold conceptual choices that I won't give away. It's a provisional ending, which is to say very contemporary. The whole thing is fresh and incandescent and a lively illustration of why Shakespeare still matters.