At the outset, this production of Shakespeare's pointedly unsatisfying problem play looks ominous. Seattle Shakespeare Company insists on labeling it a market-friendly "romantic comedy," which sets up all the wrong expectations. (I overheard several audience members complaining bitterly about the "happy" ending, which is, indeed, one of Shakespeare's most disagreeable.) In her director's note, Stephanie Shine passes blithely over Shakespeare's cynical title to conclude the play teaches us about the glory of forgiveness in a loving relationship. (Ha!) Then there's the set: sponge-painted a hideous orange and draped in plastic ivy.
But you'll forget all of this soon enough, because the cast is strong, the comedy is undisguised, and the self-hatred and terror at the play's center busts right through its cheerful packaging. Sarah Hartlett is perhaps an unlikely choice to play Helena, the lovesick fool who throws herself at a lover (Connor Toms, just okay) with full knowledge of his contempt. She's a bit too old for such mooning, and her huge, goofy smile—much prized in children's theater productions—disposes us to suspect Helena's more tender moments. At the same time, though, Hartlett's reckless energy powers through the fairy story–inspired illogic, making Helena's bed-trick schemes seem like loads of fun, even when they're not quite plausible. Michael Patten as the King of France and Marianne Owen as the Countess of Rossillion supply more than enough gravitas to overcome their pumpkin-colored court, and Heather Roberts is a smirking dream as the virginal flirt Diana.
The only real complaint I have is that the otherwise adequate edit of the play drops the scene explaining why everyone at court thinks Helena is dead. Kind of important, isn't it?