November 10, 2010
NYC director Joanna Settle comes to Stanford to take on one of Shakespeare's toughest nuts: All's Well That Ends Well
Shakespeare's interesting failure or a "beautiful, existential" play about bravery and self-determination? At Stanford, acclaimed director Joanna Settle takes on the work she first thought was "the play about the bad boyfriend."
By Cynthia Haven
Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well offers a grim and gritty take on how destiny unfolds from little choices. All in all, a tough nut for critically acclaimed Joanna Settle, who has directed for New York City's Public Theater and is artistic director for Shakespeare on the Sound.
Her All's Well will be performed at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday (Nov. 11-13) at Stanford's Pigott Theater in Memorial Auditorium with a cast of Stanford students. The production marks Stanford's third collaboration with the Public Theater, the nation's foremost theatrical producer of Shakespeare and new work. (It has bagged 42 Tony awards, 149 Obies, four Pulitzer prizes and scores of other honors.)
Many Shakespeare critics consider All's Well an interesting failure. Settle calls it "very beautiful and existential a good match for me."
It was not always so. When Barry Edelstein, her mentor at The Juilliard School and now the director of the Shakespeare Initiative at the Public Theater, suggested she direct one of Shakespeare's least popular plays, her reaction was unpromising: "Oh, this is the play about the bad boyfriend." Then she took another look.
"So much in this play is about self-determination, breaking class barriers, having the bravery to find your life yourself," said Settle, which makes the alternately steely and starry "problem play" rather fitting material for an audience of Stanford students. (Fitting material also for Stanford performers. This cast is almost entirely composed of undergraduates including sophomore Paul Princen as the anti-hero Bertram, performing in his first play ever.)
A play filled with sorrow
All's Well is steeped in sorrow. The Count of Rousillon has just died, and his teenage son Bertram is restless. The widowed Countess's ward, Helena, has lost her father, a renowned physician. "The entire patriarchal setting is sliding off into the dark night," said Settle. When the doctor's daughter cures the ailing, aging king of France, he offers his savior the hand of any young man she chooses. But her choice, Bertram, sees her as little more than an impoverished retainer; he rejects her outright and heads for the foreign wars. The rest turns on the standard Shakespeare machinery of bedroom switches, unsolvable riddles and unfunny puns.
All's Well is also a play about great mercies showered on those not always worthy of them. When Bertram is told to marry Helena, "she's a noose," said Settle. "By the time she walks back in, she's his salvation."
But Settle was intrigued by the "architecture of grief," an environment where "daily functionings give way you forget to eat or shower." The emotional architecture "creates the space you live in," said Settle. It also forms the flawed context for the human choice.
Her use of music has been an additional attraction in many of her productions, and will be in this one as well. All's Well will include original music by the Tony Award-winning team Stew and Heidi Rodewald, Settle's veteran collaborators. It also features music by the 12th century abbess, artist, physician, writer, mystic and composer, Hildegard of Bingen. "I think of her a lot when I think of Helena; her adventures in medicine, certainly," said Settle.
Settle's earlier productions of Shakespeare have been edgy. Her pared-down, modern-dress production of Othello had Othello defending his marriage directly to the audience, rather than the Venetian duke and senators.
Settle scoffs at the notion that she's messing with Shakespeare. "I'm not a Shakespeare fanatic. I look at the material to make sense. I don't assume it's all perfect," she said.
Creating a modern feel
"Anyone directing cuts 10 to 15 percent," she said, adding that "the script we have was never performed," but was cobbled together later. Her parings and stagings refocus and intensify the plays, so that a production "feels modern and light" rather than leaden and didactic.
In All's Well, she proceeded from "what resonates as truthful for me I begin to see the consistency in what's truthful. I was really interested in Helena's bravery, and on the dynamic of the world of the Countess and the world of the king, with the young people running back and forth, trying to survive."
Some plays you can sink your teeth into. All's Well may be more a tough and bitter nut to break your teeth on. It may be the most autumnal of Shakespeare's plays a play where the older generation is dying or looking backward toward an earlier day, passing off their burdens to a younger generation that cannot always rise to the occasion.
Settle is also a guest instructor for a directing course during her fall residency, which is sponsored by the Drama Department and the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts She calls her Stanford residency "the beginning of a two-year journey with the script," which she is exploring for an eventual East Coast production.
Tickets are available online at www.stanford.edu/dept/drama/, at the Tressider Union ticket office and at (650) 725-ARTS.