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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
All's Well That Ends Well

My eyes smell onions — Lafew
All's Well that Ends Well
John Ahlin as the King of France
(Photo:Gerry Goodstein )
The sign at the entrance of the drive that leads us to The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey on the campus of Drew University reads: "Shakespeare's mercurial comedy All's Well That Ends Well." According to Mr. Webster, mercurial is characterized by rapid and unpredictable changeableness of mood. That's a rather perfect way to describe the unexpected shifts in attitudes and "mercurial" behavior of the characters in what is commonly thought of as the Bard's "problem" play.

It's possible that I've been misled by some Shakespearean scholar to thinking that All's Well That Ends Well is noted for being his most irksome and cynical play. That works fine for me. In spite of this play's lack of humor, its sullen emphasis on class distinctions, and its generally testy morality, what I saw take place under the direction of Stephen Fried is a play that quickly becomes unexpectedly effective and even striking. I believe that Fried has helped the actors transform the somewhat unsavory nature of the characters into identifiable, if not loveable types. We can also thank him for transferring the general unpleasantness of the plot into a generally accessible late Edwardian time frame.

  Fried, who made his STNJ debut two years ago directing The Comedy of Errors (review) and has since amassed considerable regional credits, brings a lightness of spirit and style to a difficult but nevertheless worthy classic. Bothersome as the plot is, he seems to be assuring us at every turn that this absurd story of a young, common girl in love with a wealthy and titled nobleman is an intriguing and even slightly risqué romp.

  There is firstly a good-looking young actor Clifton Duncan in the role of the spoiled and snobby Bertram, the Count of Rossillion. In this, his first season with STNJ, Duncan doesn't get the opportunity to do more than look bewildered and to be charmingly condescending. But he does it so well that we look forward to seeing him in the future play a character with more spine.

  One has to work hard to care much for the shrewdly engineered machinations of the spunky Helena, as played by a very pretty Ellen Adair (also in her first season.) Perhaps because of the detached nonchalance placed on the play's idiotic and implausible plot contrivances, it almost doesn't seem to matter whether or not she succeeds in her impassioned pursuit of Bertram. He's basically a self-centered fool who decides to deserts her and goes off to fight in a foreign war rather than take her to bed. Izzie Steele makes a good impression particularly as she succeeds in exasperating the King of France with her incomprehensible, riddle-soaked explanation of the convoluted events that lead to the play's conclusion.

  I'm happy to report that John Ahlin not only rules France as its blustery king but also rules the stage in his other role as the tongue-rolling, eyes-bugging, clownishly posturing Lavatch, the devoted servant to the Countess. This play easily accommodates another clown in the person of Clark Carmichael as the incorrigibly duplicitous Parroles, one of Bertrand's followers. As the smarts are in short supply, it is a pleasure to watch Robin Chadwick look about and consider the pitifully few options and the abounding obstacles he has to contend with in his role as Lafew, the old lord and trusty friend of the Countess.

  Tamara Tunie, a familiar face at STNJ, but more famously known for her roles on many different TV series, seems to be having a good time appearing in three roles: As Bertram's mother The Countess of Rossillion, as counselor to the king, and as the Widow Capileta. In each, she shows us a respectable and variable personality. The director's conceit, possibly budgetary as well, to let principal actors double in more than one important role works very well.

  Scenic Designer Bill Clark and lighting designer Tony Galaska have collaborated to evoke without fuss but plenty of flair, a country home, a chandeliered Parisian ballroom, the King's court, and the grassy fields of Florence. Except for the regiment's khaki uniforms, the costumes by Emily Pepper are notable for their varied tones of gray, black and beige. If you can accept the conceit of having a King of France during the late Edwardian period, you can also accept Shakespeare' dubious contention that All's Well That Ends Well.

All's Well That Ends Well
By William Shakespeare
  Directed by Stephen Fried

  Cast: Ellen Adair (Helena), Clifton Duncan (Bertram), Clark Carmichael (Parolles), Tamara Tunie (The Countess of rossillion, a counselor to the king, The Widow Capilet), John Ahlin (Lavatch, The King of France), Izzie Steele (Rinalda, Diana), John Barker, Brian Cade (servants)
  Scenic Designer: Bill Clark
  Costume Designer: Emily Pepper
  Lighting Designer: Tony Galaska
Sound Designer: Karin Graybash
  Running Time: 2 hours 35 minutes including intermission
  The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, F. M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, located on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ.
(212) 973/ 408 - 5600
  Tickets ($31 - $54)
  Performances Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m. (except this Saturday, at 7:30 p.m.), Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m.
  Preview began 09/15
  Opened 09/18/10
  Ends 10/10/10
  Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 09/18/10
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