One of the best things about college theatre programs is that they are empowered to occasionally dig deep into the Shakespeare canon – rushing in where theatre angels fear to tread – to give their students the richest possible experience. In the case of WSU’s Bonstelle Theatre, this means we are treated with a season-opening production of one of the lesser known and seldom performed comedies, “All’s Well That Ends Well.”
It’s a funny play in more ways than one. It is “ha ha” funny – with plenty of laughs, witticisms and comedic situations. But it also has a problematic story premise that every contemporary production has to come to terms with. Essentially, this is the tale of a fabulously lovely and loveable young woman named Helena, with every grace to recommend her, who goes to amazing lengths to win and woo a young nobleman named Bertram who frankly doesn’t deserve her. For this play to end happily – certainly the definition of a comedy in Shakespeare’s day – Bertram must somehow see the light, wed Helena, and manage to become likeable, or at least show potential, to the audience.
Director Carolyn M. Gillespie takes the challenge head on. She adds a prologue, epilogue, and chorus of college students (presumably at WSU) who add just enough wackiness to remind the audience not to take this too seriously. The show opens as a group of students wander on stage waiting for their class on Shakespeare to begin. Since many of them are in Glee Club, they sing to pass the time, and invite the audience to join in. The songs are popular love protestations, ranging from early Beatles to present day, and set the tone for the over-the-top nature of infatuations. The “professor” walks in and begins by offering the class some background on “All’s Well that Ends Well,” noting that the story was already old in Shakespeare’s day and can be traced back to a popular medieval story from Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Decameron.”
The Prof asks one of the students to read the first part, and we are transported into the play. The Professor becomes the Lord Lafeu, the students become the Chorus (still dressed in jeans and hoodies) as other actors make their entrance in full Elizabethan costume.
Inspired by the line, “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together,” Gillespie’s approach weaves both contemporary and period attitudes, characters, and costumes into a tapestry designed to please – so that anachronistic songs and gestures just become part of the fun. The inventive, modern scenic design by Sarah Pearline, the mix of Elizabethan and modern costumes by Mary Gietzen (including some interesting hybrids), and lighting by Thomas Schraeder and Amy Schneider, bring welcome texture to the dreamlike interpretation of this story.
Without invoking any spoiler alerts, we can say that the epilogue eventually brings us full circle in a way that provoked huge, appreciative laughter from the opening night audience. Naturally, to make time for these diversions, Gillespie had to cut some of the original Shakespeare – always controversial with purists. But the story progresses, and things ultimately work to Helena’s advantage. Since this is her story, not ours, we must be content with the explanation that love will find a way. Or as Helena herself says, “All’s well that ends well; still the fine’s the crown;Whate’er the course, the end is the renown.”
The young Bonstelle actors clearly enjoy themselves in this production and the audience is caught up in the merriment. Sydney Machesky is terrific as Helena, offering an interpretation that is true to Shakespeare but leavened with a more feminist sensibility. Bradley Smith has the challenging role of Helena’s beloved Bertram – which he portrays in the most realistic light possible – that of a handsome and privileged young man to whom everything has come too easily. If we cannot forgive his disdain for Helena, we can perhaps believe that he has grown wise enough to recognize his folly.
Garret Harris has the most fun in this production as Parolles, Bertram’s braggadocio, foppish buddy. The fact that Bertram believes Parolles to be a fine, upright man of true valor explains a lot about Bertram’s discernment elsewhere. The counterpoint to Parolles is Lafeu/The Professor, played by Carl Bentley – who gives us a person of true moral fiber, generosity, wisdom and quiet strength.
Hannah Butcher is listed in the program as Widow, but she doubled on opening night as the stand in (for Gaia Klotz) as the Countess and was strong in both roles. Paul Clauson is the likable King; Kendall Rose Talbot is the virtuous Diana; Jacob Boida is the clever clown LaVatch; and members of the Chorus fill multiple roles: Dann Finn, Dante Jones, Ibrahim Karim, Caitlyn Macuga, Michaella Mallett, Chris Peterson, Kiera Schmidt, Paige Stefanski and Michael Vultaggio.
The production team includes: Carolyn Gillespie (Director), Cassandra Maniak (Stage Manager), Sarah Pearline (Scenic Designer), Brian Dambacher (Technical Director), Christa Tausney (Props Designer), Mary Gietzen (Costume Designer), Amy Schneider (Lighting Designer), Patrick Field (Master Electrician), Peter Lawrence (Sound Designer), Felix Li (Publicity Manager) and Jason Goldman (Asst. Publicity Manager).
“All’s Well That Ends Well” runs at the Bonstelle Theatre through October19, 2014. Tickets range from $10 to $20 and are available for purchase online, by calling (313) 577-2960, or at the Hilberry Theatre box office at 4743 Cass Avenue on the corner of Hancock Street. The Bonstelle Theatre is located in Midtown Detroit at 3424 Woodward Avenue, just south of Mack Avenue.