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Although painfully cliché, it is inevitable that one sees how appropriate it is to associate the title of All’s Well that Ends Well with Triad Stage, especially as its current production concludes a theatrical season that has triumphantly overcome an assortment of obstacles. Fire, flood, and an expansion into Winston-Salem have molded the affectionately – if not ironically – named “Lucky Season,” the company’s 13th year of dynamic theatre. True to form, Triad Stage’s production of All’s Well is applaudable as its first foray into the generous world of Shakespeare.
Largely considered a “problem play” in the Shakespearean canon, All’s Well is certainly problematic in terms of defining its genre. The structure of the text is congruent with that of a traditional comedy, yet the play as a whole is laden with dark tones that explore ethical and moral motifs in heightened dramatic circumstances. Marriage proving to not always bring happiness and the gravity of the consequences of sexual deviance are key components explored. However, an abundance of humorous elements and witty dialogue seems to prohibit the play’s classification as a tragedy. This ambiguity paints All’s Well in shades of grey, especially when compared to the playwright’s more clearly classified black/white works. While ambiguity can be a fertile ground for theatre, a play becomes a problem play when its complexities are not balanced appropriately in the text with human truth – as is arguably the case in All’s Well.
The challenge for any production tackling a problem play (All’s Well, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida) is to keep all elements closely rooted in natural human behavior. As the emotional ups and downs of such plays tend to be erratic, and perceivably unwarranted, it is crucial that every beat be read as authentic. If not, as it was on brief occasions with this production, the audience finds itself observing eloquent language and stimulating spectacle without the appropriate emotional investment.
With this production smartly set in the early 1920s throughout France and Italy, the plot chronicles the love-struck and dubiously persistent Helena (Kim Wong) as she quests herself to consummate her marriage to Bertram (Anthony Michael Martinez). He, refusing with disgust, humiliates and abandons her. Through a series of manipulative ruses, friendships are dismantled, allies are betrayed, and a strategic pregnancy occurs. All of which lead up to a perplexingly happy(?) conclusion.
The cast delivered a consistently solid performance. Each actor clearly demonstrated a mastery of handling the Shakespearean text with ease and clarity. Particularly noteworthy was the character of Parolles, played boldly by David Ryan Smith. Smith’s performance was layered with risk and dimension in a way that breathed humanity into his character. During the second act, as Parolles stood unmasked, defeated, and cowardly in the face of his once friends, the audience was able to lose its awareness of watching a Shakespeare production, and for a moment be immersed in something genuine, palpable, and uncalculated. Therein lies the difference between simply observing theater and experiencing it.
Visually, the production is quite striking. Robert Perry’s beautifully intense lighting pairs well with Robin Vest’s scenic design. Vest has created a circular platform with an opening directly center, back-dropped by a blue sky and white clouds. Above the stage is an abstract instillation that makes way for the cascading of leaves or flower petals at various transitional moments. Vest’s design is reminiscent of the celebrated set designer Ming Cho Lee, who presumably informed Vest’s approach as a professor at Yale School of Drama. Lee has been instrumental in the movement towards non-literal set design, which therefore provides more creative freedom for a space. In this production, although artistically stimulating and stand-alone-intriguing, it is not always evident how the set informs and elevates the play. For example, the hole in the center of the stage, which has a very prominent presence as the actors navigate their blocking around it, building fascination, serves only one active purpose temporally in one scene. Outside of that, production elements at times appeared gratuitous or heavily metaphoric.
Bill Brewer has executed the task of costuming the play beautifully and with particular consciousness to the time period. From the turn of the 20th century to the explosion of the Roaring” ‘20s, fashion – most notably for women – underwent a considerable evolution. The higher hemlines and looser silhouettes of the controversial dropped waist flapper dresses, with accompanying headscarves and accessories, gave way to a new expression of feminism. What is incredibly exciting to see in this production is the generational difference among the characters Helena and Diana, who represent new female heroism in Shakespeare, getting what they want without the disguise of men’s pants, in relation to their mother figures that uphold a more conventional standard of female decorum. It is also interesting to note that in a play such as this, where virginity and virtue are recurring motifs, the characters have not been restricted to colors traditionally associated with purity or lust.
Triad Stage’s All’s Well is an honorable undertaking of making Shakespeare accessible to local audiences. With limited exceptions where the production falls prey to innate pitfalls frequently seen in the production of the “problem plays,” the show is valiantly strong. Just as Shakespeare has taught us to question, “What’s in a name?” Triad Stage answers at the close of its lucky 13th season, “Sometimes a name means truth.”
All’s Well that Ends Well continues through Sunday, June 29. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.