Globe and Mail theatre critic J. Kelley Nestruck gives All's Well That Ends Well two out of four stars:
"Autumn has come early to Stratford with Marti Maraden's pretty and plaintive All's Well That Ends Well. With sad music, colourless costumes and a mooning cast, the production is so overwhelmingly melancholy that it makes Hamlet seem like a farce.
"While this mood is skillfully created, it is exhausting and unwavering. The first few acts are like one sustained minor chord, and it doesn't take long for it to start to drone.
"Long one of Shakespeare's least-produced plays, All's Well That Ends Well's uneasy mix of light and dark and flawed protagonists found new life at the end of the 19th century with the rise of theatrical realism. Maraden sees this as its ideal time period, setting this production in 1889, the year Ibsen's A Doll's House hit the English-speaking world, and noting a kinship with Chekhov's 'imperfect humans' in her director's note.
"The play's imperfect heroine is doctor's daughter Helena (Daniela Vlaskalic) who, like her namesake in A Midsummer Night's Dream, loves a man who despises her. Since the count Bertram (Jeff Lillico) considers Helena to be too lowborn for him, she hatches a fairytale plan to catch him for a husband. Using a special treatment she learned from her late father, Helena heals the ailing King of France (Brian Dennehy) with the proviso that she get to marry a Lord of her choosing.
"Forced into marriage by the King, Bertram runs off to war soon after the ceremony to avoid consummating it with Helena. He sends a message back from the front that: 'When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband.' Naturally, the crafty Helena soon figures out a way to riddle his riddle with holes.
"Maraden's production has little success in unravelling the complexities of these two characters. Helena is so obsessive in her pursuit of Bertram that she stoops to morally dubious manipulations, but Vlaskalic portrays her as sweet, dimpled and innocent.
"As for Bertram, Lillico captures his immaturity, but is unconvincingly caddish. He only really inhabits the character when, after lying and conniving all play long, he does an implausible 180-degree turn in the play's final moments and promises to 'love [Helena] dearly, ever, ever dearly.' (Lillico also has a very specific, waltz-like rhythm to his delivery that often seems to slip into recitation.) Around these central characters, the French court goes about its business in a slow and languorous fashion. Tom Rooney's club-footed clown Lavache looks lovely, but his sullenness eventually becomes ridiculous as Maraden has him limp on gloomily at the beginning and ending of each act just to keep the energy low.
"Lavache is not alone in his bovine attitude: Everyone from the King of France (Dennehy) to Bertram's mother, the Countess of Rossillion (Martha Henry) seems in need of a Paxil prescription and a kick in the pants.
"This All's Well That Ends Well does have its pleasures, first and foremost being Juan Chioran as the extravagantly dressed braggart soldier, Parolles. His empty boasts are eventually exposed by Bertram's troops when they pretend to be enemy soldiers, capture him and easily get him to spill his gutless guts.
"Stratford's company has created a trio of memorable gulls who maintain their dignity this season, whether Peter Donaldson's Don Armado in Love's Labour's Lost or Geraint Wyn Davies's Polonius in Hamlet. Chioran's Parolles is particularly touching as he picks himself up again after his comeuppance. 'Who cannot be crushed with a plot?' he says with a shrug.
"'There's place and means for every man alive.' (Indeed, the kind lord Lafew, played by Stephen Ouimette, takes him in.) Since Parolles gets reconciled and the lovers reunite, All's Well That Ends Well can been seen as Shakespeare's most forgiving play. But surely there must be some irony in a play that concludes with such a terrible match as Bertram and Helena, a possibility Maraden seems to ignore in her one-note, sad-sack production. After all, “All's Well That Ends Well” is just another way of saying that the ends justify the means, and we have plenty of Shakespearean tragedies that show just how bad a philosophy that is."