ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELLby William Shakespeare
Stolen Shakespeare Guild
Directed by Lauren and Jason Morgan
Stage Manager – Timothy Betts
Costume Design – Janelle Lutz
Set Design – Jason and Lauren Morgan
Lighting Design – Bryan Douglas with Hunter Douglas
Sarah Zabinski – Helena
Michael Rudd – Bertram
Cindy Matthews – Countess
Delmar H. Dolbier – King of France
Bryan Douglas – Lafew
John Tyler Shults – Parolles
Nathan Dibben – First Lord
Grayson Howe – Second Lord
Anna-Marie Boyd – Diana
Jessica Dahl-Colaw – Widow
Amelia Reinwald – Mariana
G. Mike West – Duke of Florence
Seth Johnston – Clown
Jason Morgan – Soldier
Reviewed Performance: 2/23/2014
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
So begins one of the most recognized phrases by William Shakespeare from the Seven Ages of Man monologue in As You Like It, now playing in repertory with All’s Well that Ends Well at Stolen Shakespeare Festival. That quote is timeless, as there are few among us who don’t often believe we are actors in our own life stories, especially when the stage seems arrayed against us.
In fact, Shakespeare is universally timeless. The magic of it appears in un-numbered historical timeframes, countries and cultures. Marry, it applies to all forms of the human condition. And now we see Stolen Shakespeare Guild place All’s Well that Ends Well in the time of World War I, 1914-1918.
It seems strange, this light-plotted affair ‘twixt a comedy and a drama would appear in one of the darkest times of human history, when nine million soldiers lost their lives. But perhaps it’s not so surprising. Shakespeare’s original tale took place during an imaginary Tuscan War. While his story is not historical, there were wars over Tuscany in Shakespeare’s time and, as is true of all his plays, elements of historical truth abound.
All’s Wellis not really a war story; rather it’s a love story within the backdrop of war. Helena, a young maiden of French Roussillon follows her love, Bertram, to Paris as he joins the King’s court. He’s the son of a Countess who also raised Helena as her own. He cares little for her due to her “low birth.” In Paris, Helena cures the King of a deathly illness and he gives her Bertram as a husband, who then runs off to Florence to fight in the Tuscan War.
Jason and Lauren Morgan directed and designed the set for All’s Well. A one-piece set consisted of a couple of single-height platforms across the floor with a hut designed to look like a battle camp. This set allowed the action to play out in Roussillon, Paris, Florence, Marseilles, and a battlefield camp without need for scene changes and this moved the play quickly to fit into a 2-hour performance. The spartan set easily suggested these locations without question.
Lighting by Bryan Douglas and Hunter Douglas was dim at the set edges to support the impressionistic sceneries, but also bright enough in the acting areas to see everything clearly. Though most photos of WWI are in black and white, the walls and lighting colors, and the scene pieces and decorations suggested what we often associate with that era, muted earth tones and khaki colors to match uniforms and battlefields.
Janelle Lutz created costume designs accurate to the period and lavish for the highborn European characters. Soldiers wore believable WWI uniforms. Ladies wore floor-length silk dresses, pearls and fancy accessories. Civilian men wore dark pre-20’s suits like we see in Roaring 20’s photos. Hair for all actors were also period, with women’s short hair tied up in rolls and men’s slicked-back.
All Shakespeare is found in the language of the text. The actors did not try to affect French accents and this allowed them to be understood easily. Dialog was delivered naturalistically, not poetically as is sometimes done, even though the poetic verse is strong in All’s Well. The direction created easy-to-follow movement in keeping with the dialog and all was fast-paced with no lag between lines. The phrasing of the text sounded original, but the actors did a fine job delivering the lines with a strong sense of the story in mind, even when some of the words or lines were not recognizable in today’s English.
Bertram was played by Michael Rudd. Bertram’s youthful vigor and high station in life gives him an air of confidence, knowing he is somebody and in-control of his future, thought he quickly learns he does not control his life, the King does. Rudd played his early character as aloof and assured, a bit like watching Howard Hughes in movie reels. Bertram learns he’s being given to Helena, a sudden role reversal. Rudd’s facial expression showed shock and disbelief. He played the sullen youth bent on having his own way as his character goes off to war. What we see in Rudd’s character development was a rollercoaster of highs and lows that made Bertram more fun to watch as he is manipulated by Helena.
Sarah Zabinski played Helena. Helena’s low status in the beginning is raised dramatically after she cures the King and is allowed to pick a husband. Zabinski portrayed her as a shy girl with demure expression. When Helena is “adopted” by the Countess, she gains strength to admit love for Bertram and Zabinski showed this strength with subtle changes in her voice and body movement. She played even stronger as she received the blessings and right to choose a husband from the King, standing more uprightly and projecting her voice with more power. As Helena continues to succeed in her plans to ensnare Bertram, Zabinski adds more force and confidence in her voice, walking a quicker pace, showing the look of Bertram in the beginning. Changes were subtle and we just felt her grow.
Two comical characters kept All’s Well light and easy. Seth Johnston played the Clown, an old caretaker to the Countess’ family. Johnston’s Clown is a down-to-earth man of the dirt, a wise old man who knows just how to play his service to the wealthy while subtly getting his points across to the Countess. Johnston created a hilarious character that walked, talked, and dressed in a manner that delighted the audience every time he was onstage. His accent was lowbrow English (the play was set in France), maybe a little Scottish (?), and always spoken in a gently gruff voice. His accent contrasted with other characters who did not use an accent, so his stood out as unique. Johnston’s voiced volume, how he held his head down, and constant twitching of his hands told us he was lowly, maybe a little “dumb.” But his eyes said, as he spoke to his uppers, “I may be dirt poor and ignorant but I have a thing or two on you.”
Johnston’s walking shuffle was a laugh by itself. He might have been one of the best and most natural clown characterizations I’ve seen, very understated but effective.
John Tyler Shults played Parolles, a buffoon Spanish soldier pretending he’s an officer. Parolles was also a foolish clown, but not by being one, rather by being the totally serious butt of all jokes, and a target of ridicule and sport. Shults played this character as a good comedian does; he let his character believe everything he did was not only admirable but admired by all. In early scenes Parolles appeared to be an important military officer, and only his elaborate Italian uniform, looking like a 3rdworld dictator, would suggest he might be otherwise. As Parolees is forced by Bertram to go into a real war, Shults created a false bravado and then an open cowardice that undid all Parolles’ plans for grandeur.
His inquisitor was played by Jason Morgan, with a false accent reminiscent of something by comedian Andy Kaufman. With this prosecution by the fake captor, the blindfolded Parolles sang like a canary giving away troop strength, as well as bad-mouthing officers and his young master, to their face. This spurred uncontrollable reactions of comic violence in each of the officers. Their scene together was worth the price of admission. Hilarious!
Shakespeare’s title expresses the well-known saying, “All's well that ends well.” Problems don’t count when the ending turns out good for everyone. This was probably the main theme Shakespeare intended, but the play also explores how status affected people, challenged levels of power in English society, and poked fun at sexual mores through gender reversals and bawdy talk. There is one other famous saying from this play that may be a subtle message from Shakespeare. The Countess advises the young Bertram, her son, in his travels to distant lands with heartfelt motherly advice, “Love all, trust a few, Do wrong to none.” This could be a watchword for all of us and certainly a blessing to all our children.
All’s Well That Ends Wellis not one of the plays people can describe in synopsis, though some quotes are among the most notable. It was not even popular in his day, probably due to its complex, perhaps immature, structure. Scholars believe he jumped into writing his major blockbusters after All’s Well, but as is true of all things Shakespeare, there’s plenty argument to go around. If that is true, though, then All’s Well and his other “problem plays” were a great laboratory for him.
Stolen Shakespeare Guild is well known and lauded for its mission to “bring the Master Playwright’s legacy to a new generation that is fresh and entertaining.” This company takes chances, not only in presenting big production, well-known, highly popular plays, but also less popular ones as well. This production provides a light-hearted evening of comedy and a bit of thoughtful reflection. All’s Well That Ends Well only plays one more weekend and it’s worth the drive over to Fort Worth’s Art Center.
Stolen Shakespeare Guild
Ft Worth Community Arts Center Hardy and Betty Sanders Theatre
1300 Gendy Street, Fort Worth, TX. 76107
Plays through March 2nd
Saturday, March 1st at 8:00 pm, and Sunday, March 2nd at 2:00 pm. General Admission tickets are $15.00. In repertory with As You Like It. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit http://www.stolenshakespeareguild.org/ or call Theatre Mania at 866-811-4111.