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Love hurts

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All's Well That Ends Well is one of Shakespeare's "problem plays," so called because they aren't easily labeled as either comedy or tragedy. Currently staged by the Shakespeare Tavern, All's Well focuses so much on unhealthy relationships that it might fit most comfortably with the modern self-help genre, alongside books with titles like Women Who Love Too Much (And the Men Who Ignore Them).

Melanie Colvert plays the love-struck heroine Helena, who attends her father's funeral in the first scene. But she scarcely mourns, because she's so stuck on Bertram (Peter Hauenstein), a young count who couldn't care less for her. After Act One's tedious first half, things finally pick up when Helena cures the ailing king, whom Bill Griffith portrays as so weary that the action all but stops with his every speech.

The king grants Helena her wish to marry whomever she chooses, and she names the horrified Bertram, who grudgingly agrees to the union and then flees to Italy without even kissing his bride. Helena outmaneuvers Bertram with a complicated ruse at the end, but she still comes across as something of a stalker. Hauenstein is fittingly haughty and Colvert gives Helena some amusingly neurotic moments, but you can't really respect either of their roles.

Fortunately we're supposed to dislike Parolles, a boastful soldier and a cowardly liar, whom Maurice Ralston plays with relish. His comeuppance is All's Well's funniest and most dramatically satisfying scene, even though it feels derivative of Shakespeare's treatment of Falstaff in other plays.

For that matter, All's Well's spare plot is timid compared to Measure for Measure's treatment of sexual politics or A Winter's Tale's portrait of obsession. By staging All's Well, the Shakespeare Tavern only confirms that it's an inessential work whose shelf life has expired.

All's Well That Ends Well plays through Dec. 8 at the New American Shakespeare Tavern, 499 Peachtree St. Fri.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m. Sun. at 6:30 p.m. $19.50-$24.50. 404-874-5299.

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