Sunday, September 20, 2009

All's Well That Ends Well

ALL’S WELL doesn’t end well for CWRU MFA program

Last season Case Western Reserve’s MFA Acting Program presented a fine production of ‘AUTOBAHN.’ This season they undertook Shakespeare’s ‘ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL.’ Unfortunately, the results were not as positive an experience.

The plot concerns Hellen, a lowborn beauty, who serves in the household of the Countess of Rousillion. Hellen is secretly in love with Bertram, the Countess’s son. Bertram goes off to serve the king, who is terminally ill with a peptic ulcer. Helena’s late father, a physician, has left her his potions. Hellen goes to the King, gives him a drug which cures him and gets, in return, her choice of marrying any male in the King’s court. Of course, she chooses Bertram, who under pressure reluctantly marries her, but before the marriage is consummated he runs off to Italy supposedly to fight in a war. While in Italy, he writes Hellen that, "When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband." That message causes great angst, plot twists result, and eventually everything is resolved as supposedly, all’s well that ends well.

There is no evidence that ‘ALL'S WELL’ was popular in Shakespeare's own lifetime. It has remained one of his lesser-known plays, in part due to its odd mixture of fairy tale logic, supposed realism and its chauvinistic attitude.

Hellen's love for the seemingly unlovable Bertram is difficult to explain. With the right production, however, one in which Bertram, at the start appears to be naïve, and, in the end apologetically comes to his senses, it might be fathomable. That’s exactly what happened in the fine Canadian Shakespeare Festival’s production I saw several seasons ago. But, unfortunately, that is not the tack taken by either director Geoff Bullen nor Tom Picasso, who plays Bertram. The scowling Picasso introduces Bertram as a bully, ends him as a bully, and that is one of the reasons this production stumbles.

It appears, in spite of an impressive resume, that Bullen isn’t sure where the script should go. There is farce, comedy, melodrama inconsistently all mixed into one. Even the music he selected as backup is often off-putting, especially the melodramatic inserts.

As for the cast, Leigh Williams, who was so wonderful in ‘AUTOBAHN,’ seems awash in the role of Hellen. The same for Tom White, who also stood out in last season’s production. His King is right on the surface, showing no depth of characterization. Picasso spends most of the play displaying exaggerated facial expressions and making little sense of his lines. On the other hand, Catherine Albers (a widow who befriends Hellen) and Sarah Nedwek (her daughter) are excellent.

Jeffrey Van Curtis’s costumes and Jill Davis’s set designs are era right and effective.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: A combination of poor directing, some misguided acting and producing one of Shakespeare’s weakest plays resulted in a CWRU MFA Acting Company production that was less than a satisfying experience.