LENOX - "All's Well That Ends Well," one of William Shakespeare's "problem plays," earned that label because it's, well, problematic. It's a comedy except when it's a tragedy, realistic except when it's a fairy tale, romantic except when it's cynical. And true love wins out in the end, unless the young lovers are really complete jerks: Bertram a cad and a narcissist, Helena a manipulative witch.
Problems, problems. But now Shakespeare & Company's Tina Packer has solved them all - if not definitively, then certainly to any sensible person's satisfaction. And she's done it not by trying to dance around the play's inconsistencies and contradictions, but by facing them head on.
Problem 1: Is it a comedy or a tragedy? Neither - it's a musical!
Et voila, it doesn't have to make perfect sense anymore. It can jump from France to Florence and back again, veer from humor to heartbreak, play like a fable one minute and a docudrama the next, and still work because the songs fill in the gaps.
Problem 2: How can we care about the young lovers if they're jerks? Solution: They're not jerks - they're idiots!
They're young lovers, for Pete's sake. She's an infatuated teenybopper who has no idea what she's really wishing for; he's a randy young brat who flirts with her without even realizing it, then has a tantrum when she falls for him while he's still wanting to sow wild oats.
So of course their story veers toward tragedy. If proud Lord Capulet had been running this show, instead of the wise and generous Countess of Rossillion, we'd be looking at Romeo and Juliet. But trust a woman - not just the countess on stage (given great warmth and humor by Elizabeth Ingram, by the way), but the director guiding her - to see beyond the adolescent histrionics and impetuosity, and to help her foolish young pups grow up.
These fundamental problems solved, Packer and her cast can breathe deep and relax into the pleasures of the play, which in this lively and full-spirited production are considerable. Jason Asprey is a bit old for Bertram, but he pouts and preens like the greenest teenager; Kristin Villanueva gives Helena every giggle and sob and exuberant leap she needs.
As for the clowns, Kevin O'Donnell brings the house down as the foolish, foppish Parolles, with a wonderfully beribboned wig that evokes his inner Cowardly Lion. And Nigel Gore moves the Countess's fool, Lavache, from the sidelines to center stage, providing narrative continuity and emotional richness with his impassioned, eloquent performance of the production's songs.
And oh, those songs: Drawing on the happy fact that Rossillion lies in the South of France, where the troubadours originated, Packer has taken songs from that tradition as well as Shakespeare's words - both from "All's Well" and from his famous sonnet on "lust in action" - and fashioned them into appropriate lyrics for key moments.
Composer Bill Barclay sets these, not to pseudo-authentic 14th-century-ish tunes, but to music that sounds like Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen or, occasionally, Fairport Convention - modern troubadours all. The quintessentially Sixties mix of innocence and fury fits the play remarkably well; the songs, like the characters, are passionate and questioning, full of conviction and confusion all at once. Kids.
But they're kids whose choices have consequences, and here's where the production's wisdom flowers - just as the potted trees of Susan Zeeman Rogers's beautifully simple set design gradually blossom and bear fruit as the characters ripen. When Helena cures the king of France and so wins the power to claim Bertram as her husband, she has no idea the choice will make them both miserable: him because he's too arrogant to accept the lower-born girl who's his mother's ward, and her because he doesn't want her.
This misery is central to the play. It sets in motion both Bertram's impulsive, testosterone-fueled flight to join the army and Helena's desperate self-exile as a religious pilgrim, after he's said he'll accept her only once she pries an ancestral ring from his finger and becomes pregnant with his child - something he has no intention of allowing. But then comes the famous "bed trick," in which she fools him into sleeping with her, and . . .
And, wonderfully, just as she infused the earlier wedding scene with a full sense of its unintended woe, so Packer gives the "happy ending" a mournful undercurrent of hard-won wisdom. It is happy, but at a price. Be happy, young lovers, but be young lovers no more.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.