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article imageReview: Fast-paced staging fires up ‘All’s Well’ in Toronto’s High Park Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Jul 16, 2016 in Entertainment
Toronto - “All’s Well that Ends Well” is a famous title, but it’s not one of William Shakespeare’s better-known plays. This year, Canadian Stage is tackling this rarely remounted work with a wide comedic onslaught – mostly to its advantage.
Director Ted Witzel, who helmed a highly modernized The Taming of the Shrew for Shakespeare in High Park three years ago, has returned to the annual Toronto outdoor theatre attraction this summer to give All’s Well that Ends Well a similar millennial vibe. The production, which opened last night at the High Park Amphitheatre (alternating nights with Hamlet, featuring the same cast), aims to compensate for Shakespeare’s unsympathetic leads and baffling plot with broad humour and characters, a fast pace and plenty of departures from the original text. Not everybody will agree with the latter, of course, but at least this version is far from dull. In fact, it’s a lot of fun.
All’s Well follows a scheme by Helen (Mina James), the young ward of Countess Rossillion (Nicky Guadagni), to force her son Bertram (Kaleb Alexander) into marrying her: when he visits the ailing French king (Marvin L. Ishmael) in Paris, she follows him and cures the king with one of her late father’s medical prescriptions, on the condition that she can marry the man of her choice. But after the forced wedding, Bertram flees his unwanted wife to go to war in Florence, without even a goodbye kiss. What she sees in this creep is never explained; Bertram comes off as an aloof, self-centred jerk, both in the text and in Alexander’s portrayal.
Determined, Helen follows Bertram again and, with the help of a couple of new friends, attempts to trick him into consummating the marriage with a not-so-ethical substitution plot that you may remember from Revenge of the Nerds. A subplot involves the efforts of Bertram’s war buddies to unmask his friend, Parolles (Qasim Khan), as a parasitic coward and hypocrite; Khan plays him as a loud, arrogant, overbearing, woman-chasing bro type, but with a secret.
As he did with Shrew, Witzel caters to young audience members by making the setting as contemporary as he can, complete with pop music interludes and extra-sexed-up jokes. Bertram, Parolles and their fellow soldiers are depicted as boozing, partying frat kids at a modern dance club, learning about one character’s (faked) death via their cell phones, while Helen imbues her proposal to the king with suggestiveness and sass that would have been unthinkable from a woman in Shakespeare’s time. She also pretends to be a college backpacker looking for a hostel when she arrives in Florence (in the original, she says she’s on a pilgrimage). “I’m just taking a year off to find myself,” Helen says, a line that I don’t remember from the text.
That’s not the only time that Witzel alters the Bard’s script. Many of the changes are associated with the clown character, Lavatch, played by Rachel Jones as a loud, tacky, drunken middle-aged woman in a cow-patterned dress, sort of Courtney Love by way of Edith Prickley. Jones frames the production with three original spoken-word poems, over moody bass-guitar music, about unrequited love, war and other themes in the play; she also asks another character to get her a martini at one point, and trades annoyingly repetitive “Oh my God!” blurts with Khan. Other characters call her a “slut” – the Countess’ line “What does this knave here?” becomes “What does this slut here?” – implying that her bad reputation is saucier than the usual clownish pranks.
I’m not an obsessive Shakespeare purist or anything, but these revisions couldn’t help reminding me of the notorious credit, “By William Shakespeare, with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor,” from the 1929 Shrew movie – or of Hamlet’s advice about letting clowns steal the spotlight. At what point does it stop being a Shakespeare play and evolve into something else? This isn’t a criticism, just an observation.
It’s not a comment on the performances, either. Jones is great, and Khan imbues Parolles with a level of jock douchebaggery that makes you accept the cruel way Bertram’s army friends get revenge on him later. Also standing out are the older, more seasoned actors – especially Ishmael, whose king exhibits the expected impatient authority, but is also capable of pure joy and gratitude after his medical cure. Guadagni is also strong as the Countess, playing her as a confident socialite who means well, but is also capable of being needy and controlling, particularly when she forcefully asserts to Helen that “I am a mother to you,” while holding her down on a chair.
Less convincing is James, who has some funny playful moments, but doesn’t always seem to grasp the full nuances of the language. This could have more to do with relative inexperience with large Shakespearean roles than anything else, though. (She had minor parts in Witzel’s Shrew and CanStage’s Macbeth the same year.)
Critics debate whether All’s Well really is a true comedy or one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”, but Witzel definitely sees it as a comedy, if perhaps a dark one. Cute gimmicks include a model helicopter carried by actors on a fishing line (recreating Bertram’s journey to Paris) and a drill attached to a butt plug that makes several appearances, first as a medical cure and later as a threat. Torontoist.com critic Martin Morrow, for one, felt that the show worked as a comedy:
Even if you think this is one of Shakespeare’s worst plays (and it could be), you’ll still have fun at this staging of it. Just accept it as a bright, boisterous update and go with the quirks.
All’s Well that Ends Well runs at the High Park Amphitheatre until September 4.
More about Theatre, Shakespeare, shakespeare in high park, all's well that ends well, canadian stage
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