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BWW Review: Independent Shakespeare Co. Opens New Studio with a Crowd-Pleasing ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

In The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a young hotel manager optimistically states, in the face of every disaster: "In India we have a saying, 'Everything will be alright in the end. So if it's not alright, it is not yet the end.' " It's the same idea Shakespeare's heroine touts in ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL and, regardless of where it originated, it requires pluck.

BWW Review: Independent Shakespeare Co. Opens New Studio with a Crowd-Pleasing ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL
April Fritz (center) with Kalean Ung, René Thornton Jr.,
Evan Lewis Smith and Melissa Chalsma

Helena demonstrates it on her journey to win the man she loves in Independent Shakespeare Co.'s latest production, the first in its new digs in Atwater Village, and the company itself epitomizes it with each artistic endeavor. Over the last fifteen years, ISC has produced adventurous, crowd-pleasing, outdoor summer theatre - risky business under any conditions. Their current theatrical home is Griffith Park where they bring thousands of Angelenos together each season for the Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival.

This new indoor experimental studio expands the company's ability to interact with its audience, which has become a hallmark of ISC's summer experience. It boasts a new theatre lobby and lounge where audience members can engage in lively conversation, have a drink, take a selfie, or otherwise connect with ISC's eclectic community.

On stage, its larger space offers new artistic options (yes, we'll miss the way they creatively integrated those two immovable posts into every production), along with a broader range of technical possibilities.

It's big enough to house the lighting grid for the summer festival above its stage, currently employed to cast a cool, clean glow over the elegant gray and white chess board set for ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL. The production's color palette mirrors a world that exists in shades of gray, as if to prove to one specific character that his black and white interpretation of issues like rank and financial position need to be updated.

Helena (an engaging April Fritz) pines for Bertram (Evan Lewis Smith) but knows she can never have him because of the difference in their station. When he leaves home to join the service of the French king (René Thornton Jr.) who suffers from an unknown malady, she is inspired to follow him and attempt a cure using the medicines her father left her when he died. With the blessing of the Countess de Rousillon (Melissa Chalsma, in a delightfully high-strung take on the role), she sets off to win her love and make her fortune. In the process, she discovers she is capable beyond her years.

BWW Review: Independent Shakespeare Co. Opens New Studio with a Crowd-Pleasing ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL
L-R: April Fritz, Evan Lewis Smith and René Thornton Jr

As reward for actually curing the king, he agrees to give Helena her choice of husbands. A horrified Bertram refuses her when she announces she chooses him but the king intervenes and forces the marriage. Bertram retaliates by going off to war saying he will never be her husband in anything other than name until she gets the ring from his finger and has a child by him in her belly. Famous last words, but never underestimate the power of a woman in love.

Chalsma also directs the production and stages this version of the story during "an Italian-Austrian conflict," suspending the need to lock it into an actual time period. She combines a traditional sensibility with a modern style that is as entertaining today as it would have been for Shakespeare's audience in Elizabethan times. ISC knows its community well and succeeds repeatedly in crafting classical performances that feel like mainstream entertainment. Translation: their productions are always appealing and a heck of a lot of fun!

Comedy is plentiful, with Kalean Ung playing a put-upon hobo-like clown (LaVache) with a mean side-eye and Daniel Jimenez as Bertram's questionable companion, Parolles, a swaggering but likable libertine who can talk his way out of any compromising situation...almost. Both have hilarious discussions about sex in the play and both expertly uncover the many sexual references Shakespeare embedded in his text to please a crowd that loved risqué humor.

ALL'S WELL also employs one of Shakespeare's common devices, the bed trick, in which one woman switches places with another in bed to fool a man into thinking he is sleeping with the woman he is pursuing, but in reality he is not. Fritz arranges to replace Ung (doubling as Diana when she isn't LaVache) in bed with Bertram to accomplish his second condition for a proper marriage and hopefully get pregnant without his knowledge. Coincidentally, last summer, the two actresses performed a similar bed trick in MEASURE FOR MEASURE when Fritz (as Mariana) stepped in to save Isabella's (Ung) honor by sleeping with Angelo.

The play is edited down to a running time of two hours, including intermission, and moves seamlessly from place to place, aided in part by an uncluttered stage. The only set piece is a chair for the ailing king. Everything else is created by the actors with vibrant clarity and a welcoming generosity of spirit.

Even so, some performances could be scaled back for the indoor theatre. There are more seats than in the previous space but a tendency to overenunciate and hit the consonants and plosives with more force than necessary means a few of the characters tend toward an artificial affectation. A distracting by-product of so much effort is increased facial acting.

Ruoxuan Li's costumes are an uninspired mix of contemporary skinny jeans and generic pieces to denote nobility. The exception is the Countess' timeless black mourning dresses, two looks understated enough to reflect her breeding and position yet feminine enough to flatter the figure and be worthy of her substantial up-do. And while Helena's social status is below that of the Rousillons, this modest but headstrong young woman deserves more flattering attire than a dowdy uniform and a matronly pink dress.

A final travel montage brings all parties back to the Rousillon estate for secrets revealed and Shakespeare's somewhat dubious resolution. Helena gets her happy ending but it is a hard-won effort that requires ignoring Bertram's earlier selfish behavior. The joy of the big finish carries with it a sense of "be careful what you wish for, you just might get it." Shakespeare's protagonist will need her unwavering optimism in order to hang onto it.

This first production is a favorable beginning for Independent Shakespeare Co.'s expansion in their new indoor theater. ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL is a bright, smart, fun night out that leaves theatregoers with plenty to discuss after the final curtain.

March 22 - April 22, 2018
Independent Shakespeare Co.
ISC Studio, 3191 Casitas Ave., #130
(between Fletcher Drive and Glendale Blvd.) at the
Atwater Crossing Arts + Innovation Complex
Los Angeles, CA 90039
Tickets and info:

Photo credit: Grettel Cortes Photography

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