OSTF's gimmick free, updated 'All's Well' a delight that resonates
OBERLIN -- William Shakespeare meets "Downton Abbey" in the Oberlin Summer Theatre Festival's impressive production of the sophisticated, engrossing comedy "All's Well That End's Well," running through Aug. 8 at Hall Auditorium in this college town.
Director Paul Moser has set this production in the early 20th century and it's a wise move.
Shakespeare's complex comedy, classified as one of his "Problem Plays" due to its shifts in tone from comedic to serious, features clashes between, among other things, age and youth, worth and class status as well as men and women.
The assertiveness of one woman puts her well ahead of her time.
In the 18th century, this "low class" daughter of a physician apparently perturbed some to the point her speeches were edited to lessen her assertive personality.
In the early 20th century, playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw dismissed her as "too modern" for audiences.
One can only imagine what people during Shakespeare's time, one in which women weren't even allowed to perform, thought of the bold Helena.
But the early 20th century was a time of major change in many facets of society, so a 1900s "All's Well That Ends Well," one in which lives an independent, reform-minded woman unwilling to take "no" for an answer makes sense.
Audiences today, including in the United States, have gobbled up "Downton Abbey" about the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in 20th century England.
Moser apparently had this in mind.
"We could subtitle this OSTF production "Shakespeare's 'Downton Abbey," he wrote in the season brochure.
Beyond transporting "All's Well That End's Well" out of the Elizabethan era, Moser doesn't rely on gimmicks, such as turning Helena into a Cinderella-like character after her Prince Charming.
Helena's simply a refined, respectable woman who feels she's just as deserving of happiness as someone "above" her.
Moser, also the set designer, keeps it simple in creating the production's world. The set consists of a backdrop of an arch supported by tall columns, resembling a stately monument. Considering the palaces as settings for "All's Well," it's an effective design, which otherwise relies on chairs and other furniture to suggest locales.
Helena represents a class lower than that of the high-ranking Bertram, who refuses to marry a woman beneath his status.
But Helena, as beautifully embodied by Annie Winneg, is a woman harboring wit, a positive attitude, an assertive, shrewd demeanor that never comes across as arrogant or a beggar woman.
This subtle Helena, played winningly with great nuance by Winneg, knows what she wants and is determined to get it...even if it means resorting to trickery and medicine to cure the king of France (a nostalgic and later commanding Matthew Wright) from a severe ailment. When obstacles stand in Helena's way of winning the respect and love of Bertram, Winneg doesn't make her resort to self pity, although she does imbue Helena with modesty and vulnerability at appropriate times.
Winneg's Helena is contrasted by Colin Wulff's deceptively charming, stuck up, hurtful Bertram and his servant, Parolles (a slimy, uncouth David Bugher).
He stands in contrast to the nobleman Lafeu (a rich-voiced, polished, elegant Joseph Trumbo) and Bertram's mother, Countess Rousillion, a widow who basically adopts Helena after her physician father dies.
Karen Nelson Moser, appropriately clad in mourning black, has a refined, sad, motherly, loving, concerned countenance as the countess, who supports her "daughter" (the countess refers to herself as Helena's mother) and is troubled by her son's actions.
Cast members can not only speak Shakespeare's difficult language with ease, but understand and convey the meaning behind the words, through appropriate gestures, pauses and nuance.
"All's Well" is a puzzlement; a good portion of the play carries a mourning, dark atmosphere (credit lighting designer Jeremy Benjamin with his use of blue to suggest sadness and red to suggest danger during war scenes).
Other parts of the play are sharply funny and lighthearted, thanks in part to David Munnell's goofy comic antics as the clown, Lavatch (think a tall, versatile Jim Carrey).
"All's Well" is one of the Bard's "Problem Plays" not only due to the dizzying swings in tone, but we can't help wonder whether, indeed "All's Well That Ends Well" for Helena and Bertram.
Sure, he agrees to wed her, but at the end, there's a suggestion the union is tenuous and divorce looms as a strong possibility.
"All's Well" is an enjoyable, poetic play with characters with whom we can relate.
And even though women have gained much ground since Shakespeare wrote the play in the 1600s, people still talk every now and then about how men and women aren't on equal footing when it comes to pay and the disproportionate number of males in various fields.
Such talk makes this play resonate today.