Sunday, June 27, 2010

Helena in Spring Green: All's Well With the APT

New talent emerging in Spring Green

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Matt Schwader and Ally Carey, All's Well That Ends Well 2010. Photo by Zane Williams

It goes without saying that love is hopelessly complicated. Things are always more complicated onstage, however. A woman offstage in the “real world,” may find it difficult to get the attention of a certain guy she’s attracted to. If only it were just that simple for Helena. In the process of pursuing her love for a certain nobleman, she must save the life of a king, marry the man, be forsaken by him, asked to do three reasonably impossible things, travel a great distance at  great risk to herself and partake in a complex ruse . . . and only THEN can she really be happy just in time for the final bow. Shakespeare’s strongest women always have it the worst . . . such is the case in All’s Well That Ends Well. This summer, the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin stages a thoroughly satisfying production of the play in its outdoor Up The Hill Theatre.

To its credit, the APT has gone with a relative unknown in the female lead. Recent University  of Minnesota/Guthrie Theatre graduate Ally Carey tackles the role of Helena—a woman not born of high enough stature to pursue the man of her dreams, she finds an opportunity to do so through putting her knowledge of medicine to work. She knows how to cure the king of a rather serious illness. In exchange for doing so, she asks that she be able to chose a husband of noble birth. He agrees.

Jonathan Smoots and Ally Carey, All's Well That Ends Well 2010. Photo by Zane Williams.

Jonathan Smoots plays the king. I’ll repeat that: Jonathan Smoots plays the king. It feels so natural writing that sentence. A talented actor bolstered by a substantial amount of experience, Smoots makes a really impressive figure onstage. He’d recently played the devil. Here he’s playing twin sides of a king—the ailing man who can scarcely walk down a flight of stairs without the aid of others. Later on, he’s playing a powerful, robust, fully rejuvenated king who is quite upset when the man who Helena chooses turns her down against the direct orders of the king. It’s a lot of fun to watch Smoots in the role and he blends seamlessly into the rest of the ensemble. 

Judging from her mini-bio, Cary possesses an impressive amount of theatre experience for someone who graduated with a B.F.A. in acting in 2009. Carey has quite a bit of personality peering out around the edges of the character. Her giddiness at getting married and a bit of a visual gag with endearingly throwing rice in the air on a couple of different occasions is irresistably charming, but her personality doesn’t quite breathe through the character of Helena for the entire length of the play. Portions of the production feel a bit stiff. There’s a bit of business she does with a prop medicine trunk on a couple of different occasions that doesn’t seem nearly as fluid as it should be. There’s a timidity about Cary in the role that seems a bit at odds with the character and what she’s doing. I’d prefer a profoundly more confident Helena—one who with the kind of precision and perspicacity to believably carry out the ingenious little things she manages over the course of the play. To be fair, that sort of performance would be a little obvious—Cary seems to be going for a far more nuanced portrayal here and she’s doing it remarkably well. There’s a substantial amount of vulnerability in her performance that makes the character that much more interesting.

Matt Schwader and Jim DeVita, All's Well That Ends Well 2010. Photo by Zane Williams.

Much of the rest of the cast plays to the high standards one would expect from the APT. Of particular note here are James DeVita and Travis Knight. DeVita brings his usual appeal to the stage in the role of Parolles—a follower of the man Cary is pursuing. Parolles is a sharp wit at the heart of a vain and cowardly personality. Reading the script, it’s easy to envision someone playing the character entirely as comic relief . . . a wispy, excitable fellow without much depth. DeVita’s sympathetic approach to the role allows him the opportunity to bring his full charisma into the portrayal. He is aided here by brilliant Robert Morgan costuming. The military uniforms worn by the men in the production are impressively elaborate. While there’s no question they’d seem completely impractical for actual combat, they do the job of bringing the form and formality of the military to the stage. The extra scarves and adornments Morgan has bestowed upon DeVita add a considerable amount of affectation to the character, giving his vanity that much more depth, thus relieving DeVita some of the burden of portraying that vanity. This frees him up to focus on other things with regards to his performance.

 Joe Lullo, Jim DeVita and Travis A. Knight, All's Well That Ends Well, 2010. Photo by Zane Williams.

Travis Knight has performed with the APT in the past—largely in non-speaking supporting roles. It’s nice to see him taking a more prominent role here. Here he’s playing the First Soldier—doesn’t sound particularly prominent, I know, but he does play an important part in a key scene with Parolles. Near the end of the play, the drama has reached a battlefield. Parolles has vowed to get a drum back from the opposing army. (As I understand it, it’s a symbolic thing . . . kind of like having a flag captured on an ancient battlefield . . . lose your drum and you lose some morale . . . ) There’s no way in hell that he’s going in to the enemy camp alone and single-handedly stealing the drum back. He knows it and they know it . . . and they follow him in secret as he goes off to decide how best to lie his way back into camp. The rest of the squad decides to trick him into thinking that he’s been captured by the enemy . . . and here’s where Knight gets to shine a bit…he’s choosing to speak as the only one of the opposing army who speaks Parolles’ language. (One of the tallest stage actors in the state, Knight absolutely towers over DeVita, making for a comical contrast that adds considerably to the scene.) And he speaks with a deep, menacing foreign accent. It sounds like a bit of a mishmash of Slavic and Middle-Eastern accents. Knight makes it sound both menacing and comical at the same time. The performance here, which is as physical as it is verbal, really highlights both the serious and comical ends of that particular scene as we see Parolles talking negatively about his own military. 

 Ally Carey and Matt Schwader, All's Well That Ends Well, 2010. Photo by Carissa Dixon.

The problem with the script always ends up being the resolution. Matt Schwader does an admirable job of attempting to make the object of Helena’s affection seem like a nice guy. The script doesn’t give him very many redeeming qualities to work with, so we’re more moved to want the relationship between he and Helena to work out for her sake. His decision to completely give-in and love her in the end still doesn’t seem all that convincing. Schwader’s charisma peers out around the general odiousness of the character, giving the audience something to hold onto until the end.

Scenic Design by Takeshi Kata is as beautiful as ever. A bright red floor contrasts against the natural greens and grays of the outdoor theatre. A few vertical beams placed throughout the space provide some colorful accent beyond the floor the boldly strikes into the heart of the performance space with remarkable precision. Kata’s use of empty space here is remarkably bold in its sense of control. Live fire from actual torches are used onstage in a number of instances, which would be dangerous on a more elaborate and altogether more flammable set. The Robert Morgan costuming provides more than enough moveable visual details to fill-in around the edges of the set. Set and costuming help to focus the production quite squarely on the actors, where it belongs.     

The American Players Theatre’s production of All’s Well That Ends Well runs through October 1st Up The Hill in Spring Green, Wisconsin.


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