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BSF: "All's Well" Production is Aces

"Even bad [insert theatre legend name] is better than no [insert theatre legend name]!" So enthused my college theatre professor.  Nowhere is that more true than with the works of William Shakespeare.  In deed, some of the Bard's less well-received plays are among my personal favorites (Titus Andronicus, chief among them), but even the greats have a clunker or two in their canon.  Far be it from lowly old me to grouse about the quality of a Shakespearean script, but All's Well That Ends Well must surely be one of his weakest comedies.  That said, in spite of the story, the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival production, which opened last weekend in Hampden is a first-rate production in all aspects.  And really, you can get something from anything Shakespeare wrote, right?  So, by all means, you should get to this one.

The story can be boiled down to this:  Girl loves boy who is way out of her means, so she magically cures the ailing King of France who grants her betrothal rights to any man in the kingdom.  Girl picks boy, he rejects her and he joins a foreign army.  Boy goes after another girl, longing to take her virginity.  First girl fakes death, works in cahoots with second girl, and gets herself pregnant by her unwitting husband.  Throw in some jewelry, lots of talk about sex, and you have All's Well That Ends Well.  Being that it is a comedy, of course, all actually ends well – boy gets laid, so he's happy; girl gets the man she loves to knock her up, so she's happy.  Like a Lifetime movie or a cheesy soap opera plot, this slim excuse of a play features a few subplots.  Suffice it to say, there are other things going on, so read a plot synopsis before you go.

Donald Hicken, director of the piece, has wisely chosen to set the play in 19th century aristocratic France to point up the differences between the classes and to bring the themes of obedience, honor and devotion at least closer to our times, which are seriously lacking in all three areas.  (In his notes, he also admits that he likes the way the clothes look and that the soldiers remind him of tin soldiers!)  Hicken's direction offers a brisk pace, with even the scene changes meticulously blocked, even when the plot nearly stops the thing dead in its tracks.  Using a traditional Elizabethan stage set up (designed and constructed by Lewis Shaw and Thomas Lee Brown) he uses spare set pieces (designed by the always reliable and creative Liza Davies) to tell us where we are, and uses the balcony and pillars to suggest a variety of locales as well – very Shakespearean.  And he smartly infuses modern staging techniques in his blocking and lighting (designed by Alexandra Pappas) to create excellent stage pictures.  Pappas' lighting is very nice, helping the setting and mood subtly without making it noticeable.  Adding to the beauty of the production are the delicately feminine gowns of the women and the colorful military garb of the soldiers designed by Norah Worthington.  She has clearly done her homework, as the details are magnificent.

The large company of actors is clearly at home in the Shakespearean milieu.  Every actor, from non-speaking servants to the leading roles is fully engaged and use body language to communicate much, often filling in the details where William's words are lacking.  Included in the cast are seven young actor interns from the Baltimore School of the Arts: Eric Berryman, Morgan Camper, Isaac Dalto, Cameron DelGrosso, Brittani Green, Mary Shock and Cedric Todd.  Each not only adds to the sheer magnitude of the production, but each holds their own against a troupe of very experienced older actors.  I hope they have learned much from this valuable experience.  Mr. Dalto, in fact, has a key scene as the Duke of Florence, where he expresses much boy-like glee at impending battle over his toy battle scene.  He was delightful.  Mr. DelGrosso also makes a smart impression as a messenger/page.  Congratulations, all.

In the main cast, several supporting players do well.  J.J. Area and Dana Whipkey are both quite funny in their roles of the Dumaine brothers, soldiers in the war.  Both convey a slick, sly cunning as they grin and cajole their way through the play.  Susan Rome, in a brief appearance as the Widow, makes the most of her scenes and adds greatly to the fun, especially as she works out a deal for her daughter, who helps our leading lady trick her reluctant husband.  And Richard Pilcher makes a wonderfully blustery and commanding King of France.  His entrances alone make the show worth attending.  Finally, Diana Cherkas as Diana, apple of our hero's eye and co-conspirator to bring him down, works her feminine wiles to great comedic effect.  Ms. Cherkas is always a delight to watch (she appears all over town in Shakespearean plays) and is becoming a very respectable Shakespearean actress.

All's Well has three central characters, Helena, the maiden in love, Bertram, the man she loves, and Parolles, a lying scoundrel and friend of Bertram.  Tony Tsendeas as Parolles, raises the entire level of quality to an already quality production.  Every time he takes the stage, one loses sense of time and place, so comedic and riveting is his performance.  His opening monologue on the virtues of losing one's virginity is a riot.  His subplot, where his lying schemes are discovered by his fellow soldiers, and they trick him into admitting his deceits, are really the highlight of the play.  Tsendeas is a marvel during an extended scene where he is blindfolded and out in the stocks, and must plead for his life.  Grounding the character, his face when he realizes he has been out duped is very telling and even a bit sad.  But in true Shakespearean comedy tradition, even he turns out well, as the truth has set him free and gained him a measure of respectability.

John-Michael Macdonald as Bertram delivers a fine performance.  His dashing looks and ego-filled presence makes it clear why he'd be attractive to the ladies, best pals to the guys, and still arrogant enough to spurn a woman because she is of lower station.  He plays both hero and villain well.  Finally, as Helena, a character that requires lovelorn behavior, street smarts, a sharp tongue and believability in manipulation, the BSF has struck gold with the lovely and smart Jenny Tibbles.  She makes the most of her role, playing to the audience; gaining our confidence and making us root for her, even as she connives her way into her husband's bed.  One wonders what she might have done with a full scene where her Helena confronts her husband, who thinks he is sleeping with another woman!  Ms. Tibbles is another local artist gaining herself a terrific resume, whether it be onstage or directing or working for various theatre companies around town.  We are fortunate to have her here in Charm City!

And so it goes.  The Baltimore Shakespeare Festival has made a so-so play into a worthwhile event.  Shakespeare's themes may be grand and relevant, but his take on them is lacking.  But this production certainly makes up for its shortcomings.

PHOTO: (L to R) Jenny Tibbels, Diana Cherkas and John-Michael Macdonald.  Courtesy of the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival.

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