Director Dan Hodge strikes a fine balance between comedy and drama in the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective’s presentation of All’s Well That Ends Well. In keeping with the sardonic tone of Shakespeare’s problem play, the astute production captures both its acerbic wit and its cynical view of sex and relationships. Staged in-the-round at Broad Street Ministry, Hodge employs the venue’s historic architecture in place of a set design, along with effective blocking that keeps his actors moving around the space. He thereby focuses our attention on the characters and engages all sides of the audience in the work’s dark humor and hard-edged didacticism for its full two-hour-and-45-minute running time.
Parallels between the strategies and captivity of love and war abound in the story of the unrequited feelings of Helena, the orphaned daughter of a physician and ward of the Countess Rousillon, for her noble guardian’s son Bertram. After being forced to marry her by the King of France, whom she cured of his ailments, Bertram, accompanied by the scoundrel Parolles, departs for battle in Italy, where they engage in combat and in the seduction of innocent women, until they are outwitted by their ‘captors’ and receive their comeuppance.
Making her Philadelphia debut as the Countess, the outstanding Laural Merlington brings Shakespearean dignity and gravitas to her role; we can only hope that this is just her first of many appearances here. John Lopes likewise delivers a rich and mature performance as the King, sickly, weak, and wheelchair bound at first, then strong and commanding once recovered. Akeem Davis is fully at ease with the Shakespearean language and the entitled attitude of Bertram, as the young aristocrat rebukes his wife, mother, and monarch and haplessly pursues the virgin Diana. And Monroe Barrick is controlled and judicious as the nobleman LaFeu, who insightfully discerns the true natures of the others.
In contrast to the more serious characters, Brian McCann embodies with abandon the drunken lasciviousness, uninhibited comments, and ridiculous somersaults and pratfalls of Lavatch the Clown, in disheveled clothes, creepy whiteface make-up, and Bozo-style hair. Damon Bonetti turns in a sidesplitting performance as Parolles, a relentless rogue who, in one of the play’s funniest scenes, ultimately suffers disgrace at the hands of his detractors, played to the hilt by the hilarious Joel Guerrero and John Lopes, threatening and speaking nonsense to their intimidated victim.
Rounding out the cast, and contributing the pivotal maneuvers that outsmart Bertram, are Kirsten Quinn as the kind and upright Widow Capilet, who expounds the value of chastity; Donovan Lockett as her daughter Diana, who is enticed by Bertram but honors the moral integrity of her mother; and Melanie Stefan-Watts as Helena, who plots with her new friend to win back her errant husband.
To underscore the universality of Shakespeare’s themes, Hodge sprinkles the script with current references and vernacular, and lavish costumes by Katherine Fritz evoke the Edwardian era. Cellist Mari Ka-lok Ma provides original live music throughout the performance, and concludes with a rendition of “Stranger in Paradise” from the 1953 movie Kismet, with a melody by 19th-century Russian composer Alexander Borodin. Lighting by Robin Stamey beautifully accentuates the show’s changing moods, locales, and times of day.
Despite the reconciliation and rejoicing of Helena and Bertram at the play’s conclusion, we are left with the nagging feeling that all will not end well in the future of this ill-matched couple. Hodge and his ensemble leave no doubt that the ‘happy ending’ traditional to a comedy is only the beginning of a tragic marriage that never should have been.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 45 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
All’s Well That Ends Well plays through Saturday, December 17, 2017, at the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective, performing at Broad Street Ministry – 315 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (267) 521-2210 or purchase them online.