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Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Wishing It Were All Well

All’s Well That Ends Well
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Marti Maraden
Featuring Daniela Vlaskalic, Jeff Lillico, Martha Henry, Brian Dennehy and Juan Chioran

The Story: Helen, the daughter of a famous doctor, cures the King of France and is rewarded the husband of her choice. Unfortunately her choice is Bertram, Count of Rossillion, who wants nothing to do with her. Forced to marry Helena by the King, Bertram immediately runs off to war, vowing never to honor Helena as his wife until she meets certain impossible conditions. However, through various stratagems Helena manages to meet these challenges, and Bertram comes to understand the sort of woman he has married.

This play is a bit of a wink on Shakespeare’s behalf, because well-performed or not, the story does not end satisfactorily for most of the characters, the characters themselves not being very likeable. Bertram is probably the worst, for ditching his wife and trying to seduce another woman while at war, but Helena resorts to lies and dirty tricks to get him back. The clown Parolles is a braggart and a coward who is unmasked at the end, the seemingly honourable Lord Dumaines have some skeletons in their closets (as revealed by Parolles), and even the Countess of Rossillion and King of France put their pride above consideration for others. Neither tragedy nor fully a comedy, All’s Well That Ends Well is a tricky play to enjoy at the best of times.

Unfortunately, this is not one of those times. Introduced by prim piano music reminiscent of Hagood Hardy (specifically Anne’s Theme), the production is stiff from the very start. The set has steely-looking flying buttresses and illuminated scrims at the back of the stage that must look magnificent to anyone sitting along aisle five of the theatre, but the effect is lost on anyone sitting past aisles four or six. The costumes designed by Christina Poddubiuk are gorgeously crafted works of art, but as they are late Victorian (the production is set in 1889), one wonders if the starched formality of the silhouettes hinder, rather than enhance the actors’ interpretations of their roles.

Daniela Vlaskalic and Jeff Lillico are not able to elicit sympathy at all for the characters they play. Ms. Vlaskalic is a little too earnest and moony as Helena, and Mr. Lillico a tad too juvenile as Bertram, like the adolescent caught sneaking out rather than a grown man committing adultery. Leah Oster is a shade too cool as Diana, the object of Bertram’s seduction, and Tom Rooney is so dead-pan as the clown Lavatch that his many witticisms are nearly lost. There are several moments when he enters, stares out at the audience, and then leaves again. The first time is slightly amusing, and then it is just odd. Martha Henry looks unhealthily grey in her mourning black costume, and her performance as the Countess Rossillion lacks her usual panache.

The strongest performance comes from Juan Chioran who clearly enjoys playing Parolles, and understands how to make him as endearing as he is laughable. The scene in which he is being interrogated by his own regiment disguised as “enemy forces” is easily the highlight of the production, although the banter he shares with Stephen Oiumette as Lafew is a close second. Brian Dennehy plays a King resigned to his illness but with startling moments of intimidating power: at different points he grips Helena’s arm and gets in Bertram’s face as if daring them to cross him. Although they have little to do, Fiona Reid is worth watching on the sidelines as she makes the most of the Widow’s comic potential, and Ron Kennel, Ins Choi, David Leyshon and Bruce Godfree provide much-needed giggles as some over-eager young lords.

A problematic play that needs something extra to make it memorable, this production of All’s Well That Ends Well regrettably does not live up to the title, nor up to the standard of other productions on stage this season. It continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre just until August 23, 2008. For tickets call 1-800-567-1600.

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