Saturday, July 5, 2008

Maraden Plays Down The Middle

John Coulbourn (Sun Media) gives All's Well That Ends Well 3.5 stars out of five:

"When the name of the game is romantic comedy -- and when there is precious little romance on offer and a surfeit of forced comedy -- one doesn't need the gift of second sight to know that things aren't going to end well.

"And when the play in question is, in fact, William Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well, things just sort of wrap themselves up in a neat little package that fits quite nicely into the miss column of this season's hits and misses at the Stratford Festival.

"All's Well opened last week on the stage of the Festival Theatre.

"Now, in fairness to director Marti Maraden and her cast, it should be pointed out that this little number has long been recognized as one of Shakespeare's problem plays, concerned as it is with a romance between an arrogant young snob and a bright, but conniving woman who is prepared to do almost anything to woo him.

"The young man in question is Bertram (played here by Jeff Lillico), a young man whose father's death has left him not only with the title of Count of Rossillion, but with an entree to the court of the ailing King of France, whose friendship with his late father elevates the young Count to favoured status the moment he arrives at court.

"But when he left home, Bertram left behind not just his widowed mother (Martha Henry), but a young woman who burns with an unrequited passion for him as well -- his mother's orphaned ward Helena (played by Daniela Vlaskalic), whose only legacy from her late father is a vast supply of medical knowledge.

"So Helena follows Bertram to Paris, where she cures the King (stolidly played by Brian Dennehy) and asks for Bertram's hand in marriage as her reward. But though it is in the king's power to bestow Bertram's hand, he cannot control the young peacock's heart, and the young man callously abandons his new bride, insisting she is not good enough for him and listing seemingly impossible ways she might actually become his wife in life as in law.

"Helena, of course, outwits him after following him to Florence, and everybody lives happily ever after.

"Everyone who is still awake, that is, for this is one frightfully dull production, thanks as much to Christina Poddubiuk's dark appropriation of Victorian times -- so it can start in a train station, where it then proceeds to die -- as to Maraden's miscasting (for if we credit her with casting of The Trojan Women, it is only fair she wear the blame here).

"As Bertram, the fresh-faced Lillico simply lacks the grit to play the cad convincingly, while as Helena, the piping Vlaskalic opts for vacuity instead of the kind of innate knowingness that could transform this character into a pre-feminist role model. Henry, for her part, is superb, for all that she is more believable as Bertrams' grand dame than his dame.

"Fiona Reid, who like Henry essayed the role of Helena in earlier productions here, also does a fine turn as the widow Capilet, whose daughter (Leah Oster apparently in search of a tune) catches Bertram's eye and offers Helena a means to her end.

"As for the comedy of the piece, Maraden conspires with Tom Rooney to turn the boisterous Lavache into an almost inaudible spectre, falling back on Juan Chioran and Randy Hughson to pimp for laughs, seemingly refugees from this season's much more appealing production of The Taming Of The Shrew.

"Which is fitting in its way, for in the right hands, All's Well could well serve as the distaff's answer to that politically incorrect bit of misogyny.

"These are not, needless to say, the right hands."

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