For much of the history of the Stolen Shakespeare Guild’s annual Stolen Shakespeare Festival, the company has for the most part followed sensible Shakespeare-in-rep guidelines. Meaning, since there’s a limited canon to work from, with 37 plays officially ascribed to the Bard, why not pair a blockbuster with a lesser-known work?
Stolen Shakes has gone after the Shakespeare Apocrypha before, with works of questionable authorship in its lineup; but the 2014 festival is a great example of how to introduce audiences to a Shakespeare they probably haven’t seen or read. The festival opened with a standard of the comedies, As You Like It, and in the second weekend, opened another comedy with a title you might know more for its usage in the popular vernacular than for the play’s contents: All’s Well That Ends Well.
Written in 1602-03, in the latter half of his playwriting career, the plot of All’s Well has elements that are handled better in his other comedies; it’s definitely a lesser work, but it still crackles with Shakespearean wit.
Helena (Sarah Zabinski) is an orphaned daughter of a well-known doctor, left in the care of the Countess (Cindy Matthews) and in love with the Countess’ only son, Bertram (Michael Rudd). He’s away working for the ailing King of France (Delmar H. Dolbier), and she takes the opportunity to travel to the court to cure the king. If she does so, she could be rewarded with a betrothal to Bertram. There are subplots, including one with the oafish soldier Parolles (John Tyler Shults) and a clown (Seth Johnston), who piques the Countess’ curiosity.
A passed-around letter, a rumored death and secret meetings are among the twists that Shakespeare has fun with, and there are questions about the possibility of a Helena/Bertram happily-after-after, but the play’s title serves as spoiler alert.
Doing a lesser-known Bard play is always tricky, but if you’re looking to become acquainted with this one, you couldn’t do much better than this SSG staging. Directed by Jason and Lauren Morgan, it’s clearly told and respectably performed — not to mention hysterical in places, especially in the funny business with the braggart Parolles and the soldiers who capture and blindfold him.
Johnston may play the official clown, and as a drunken wiseacre, he’s terrific, as always; but as Parolles, Shults has the bigger “fool” role, and he’s marvelously scene-stealing as an obnoxious gasbag.
As Helena, Shakespeare’s fifth-largest female role (although this production is streamlined to just under two hours), Zabinski beautifully conveys the idea of a woman who is smarter than everyone else in the room but who works her natural charisma so that she gets what she wants without anyone realizing how easily she’s accomplished it. The same could be said of the regal Matthews as the Countess. As Bertram, Rudd threatens to reveal his hand, but he’s ultimately charming.
This production is set in WWI-era France, with beautifully fitted and detailed costumes by Janelle Lutz, and it’s on the same basic, airy set used for As You Like It (also by the Morgans).
At this level, it’s no wonder SSG keeps selling out shows. That’s a good ending for everyone.
ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL
Through Sunday (runs in repertory with As You Like It)
Fort Worth Community Arts Center’s Sanders Theatre, 1300 Gendy St., Fort Worth