Memorable Art Nouveau All's Well ...
Also see Bob's review of Hairspray
At the start, the callow Count Bertram of Rossillion goes off to Paris to join the court of the King of France, leaving behind his widowed mother and her ward, the orphaned physician's daughter Helena. Soon after, Helena hears of the King's lingering illness, and believing a remedy of her father which she possesses can cure the King, also goes off to the French court. After Helena's remedy restores the King's health, he rewards her by allowing her to choose any eligible member of the court to wed. Helena chooses Bertram, whom she has long loved. However, Bertram rejects her solely because she is of low birth. He only agrees to marry her when threatened with dire consequences by the king should he continue to refuse her. However, Bertram flees France without consummating the marriage and joins the army of the Duke of Florence. Bertram writes her a cruel letter stating that she will never be his true wife unless she can obtain the family ring from his finger and become pregnant with his child, neither which he avows can ever happen.
With the help of a Florentine widow and her daughter Diana with whom Bertram dallies, Helena proves quite resourceful, and All's Well That Ends Well. Shakespeare and the good King of France seem as disapproving of Bertram's unearned snobbery as today's so much more egalitarian viewers.
Director Stephen Fried has pulled off two distinct coups to delight us with theatrical high jinks and intimate storytelling. The first is the Art Nouveau setting. Roughly, this corresponds to the Edwardian era (not coincidentally, the pre-World War period that was the last era of strict social strata in Western Europe) and when Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion. This allows for era evocative costumes which make this play feel as accessible and modern as possible. It also allows for scenery (beautifully designed by Bill Clarke) which reflects the beauty and flowing lines of the Art Nouveau era.
Fried's other coup is his decision to cast only nine actors in the production's twenty-three roles. With the assistance of his lively, appropriately broad direction and distinctive costumes which assure that there can never be any doubt as to which characters are onstage, the cast projects an infectious delight in their rapid-fire role changes. Their joyful performances delightfully lift our spirits over the play's sometimes dolorous content.
Three actors each perform single roles. Ellen Adair is an engagingly outgoing and energetically upbeat Helena. The handsome Clifton Duncan limits our discomfort with Bertram by portraying him as blandly clueless. Clark Carmichael is a fine foil for much humor as Bertram's cowardly and disloyal servant Parolles.
John Ahlin is delightfully droll in alternately performing the major roles of the King of France and Lavatch, Countess Rossillion's clown, along with two additional smaller roles. The sparkling Tamara Tunie is a most engaging Countess, comically arch Counselor to the French King, and a robust Widow Capilet. Izzie Steele is a lovely and compelling Diana, the most central of her three roles.
Shakespeare Theatre's All's Well That Ends Well is quite special.
All's Well That Ends Well continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday at 7:30 pm; Thursday, Friday and Saturday 8 pm; Matinees.: Saturday & Sunday 2 pm) through October 10, 2010 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, New Jersey 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600, online: www.shakespeareNJ.org.
All's Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare; directed by Stephen Fried
Photo: © Gerry Goodstein