By William Shakespeare. Directed by Johnna Wright and Rohit Chokhani. A Bard on the Beach production. At the Howard Family Stage in the Douglas Campbell Theatre on Sunday, June 30. Continues until August 11
Johnna Wright and Rohit Chokhani’s adaptation of All’s Well That Ends Well feels like an important cultural moment for Bard on the Beach.
In part, that’s because of Wright and Chokhani’s decision to set this production in a British-occupied India at the turn of independence. It isn’t just a compelling creative choice, but a powerful recontextualization of a 400-year-old text. It also paves the way for Wright and Chokhani’s brilliant act of translation in Act 2, wherein Hindi is spoken on-stage, in multiple scenes, between several actors of South Asian descent.
Occupied India necessitates that colonization inform every relationship in this adaptation, and the implicit colonial violence and coded racism further complicate All’s Well That Ends Well’s class and gender issues.
Helena (Sarena Parmar) is a privileged Hindu woman. Her late father, a doctor, left her in the care of the Countess (Lucia Frangione), and Helena is now deeply in love with the Countess’s son, Bertram (Edmund Stapleton). When Bertram departs for Delhi to see the ailing Viceroy (Bernard Cuffling), Helena is convinced that she can restore the Viceroy’s health using her father’s teachings. The Viceroy agrees to let her try, but tells her that if she fails and he dies, she will be executed. Helena accepts with a condition: if she’s successful and he lives, he must let her choose any husband she wants.
The Viceroy lives, Helena chooses Bertram, and he’s forced to marry her even though he loudly and repeatedly objects, saying she is beneath him. To further communicate his displeasure at their matrimony, Bertram abandons his bride to go fight in the North, and leaves her two impossible tasks if she wants to win him back: secure the family heirloom ring that sits on his finger and become pregnant with his child. This leads to a whole messy plot that’s a disturbing violation of consent no matter what century All’s Well is performed in, but eventually Helena wins Bertram over and, well, it’s right there in the title.
Wright and Chokhani’s reinvention can’t utterly eliminate the play’s inherent “ugh” factor, but it does showcase some excellent performances.
Pam Patel as Diana, the woman Bertram tries to seduce and with whom Helena conspires, is an enchanting delight on-stage, funny and fiery in equal measure.
Jeff Gladstone is hilarious as the preening Parolles, a schemer who loves to cause trouble.
But the person who almost walks away with the whole show is Parmar. She brings so much vitality and warmth to the stage; her Helena is complicated and strategic, strong and vulnerable, determined and sexy. It’s a star-making performance in one of the most important adaptations in Bard’s history.