All’s Well That Ends Well at Maryland Shakespeare Festival

The Washington region is blessed with a rich variety of Shakespearean production, ranging from the grandeur of Shakespeare Theatre Company, to the experimental innovation of WSC Avant Bard, and beyond. Think you’ve seen it all? Think again.

The Maryland Shakespeare Festival‘s current production of All’s Well That Ends Well, presented at All Saint’s Episcopal Church in Frederick, is part of its’ “Bare Bard” series in which the works are performed by professional actors, “replicating Shakespeare’s original practice of limited rehearsal and minimal direction.” In other words, a group of actors rehearse for a couple days to mount an entire Shakespearean play in a big room with natural lighting, no set, and very minimal costuming. Prompter Stephen Lorne Williams is on hand with the text throughout the performance as actors call “line.”  Some actors openly carry scripts or notecards.

In many ways, the production feels like watching a very good rehearsal or staged reading – but it’s a thrilling experience for an audience to be invited into the rehearsal process. And let’s face it, in a time of economic difficulty, it’s refreshing to know that a problem play like All’s Well can be produced without a million dollar budget, allowing students and lit lovers to hear every word performed by skilled artists without having to break the bank for tickets.

All’s Well That Ends Well primarily tells the story of Helena (Sarah Olmstead Thomas), a gentlewoman who seeks the unrequited love of Bertram, Count of Rousillon (Bob Sheire). After being granted his hand in marriage by the King of France (Steve Hoochuk), she pursues a fleeing Bertram to the Florentine army where she ultimately wins his allegiance by tricking him into siring a child with her.

It’s a convoluted plot, to say the least, and it’s difficult for modern audiences to relate to a female protagonist who so desperately seeks the affection of a man who does so little to redeem himself. That’s not to say the play is without redeeming qualities, however: whereas substantive female characters are few in most Shakespearean plays, All’s Well boasts three complex central women. Sarah Olmstead Thomas delivers the standout performance as Helena – it’s a sympathetic portrayal of a complicated young woman, imbued with humor and pathos. Her performance polished and nuanced enough to appear in any full-scale production of the work. Sparks ignite in scenes between Thomas and Shannon Parks as the wise Countess of Rousillon, mother of Bertram. Maya Jackson makes a fiery Diana, the object of Bertram’s affections.

One of the interesting by-products of a guerrilla experiment such as this is a combination of actors who approach the material from a variety of acting styles. As Lefeu, Stephen Mead articulates the text with the music of a classical lilt, and Matthew Pauli’s commedia expertise shines as the clown Lavache. Colby Codding brings a Steve Carrell-like presence and energy to his portrayal of the scoundrel Parolles – a concept so foreign to my expectations of Shakespeare (yet refreshingly amusing) that my sides were sore from laughing by the end. His performance resonated with modern audiences in the way that the original actors must have entertained Shakespeare’s contemporaries… which is exactly what The Maryland Shakespeare Festival strives to achieve.

If you’re looking for a fun and thoughtful way to experience Shakespeare,  a “Bare Bard” production sure beats reading a play alone at home! The Maryland Shakespeare Festival involves the audience in a way that makes you feel like you’re part of an informal table reading with a group of talented friends.

Running time is 2 hours and fifty minutes, including one intermission.

All’s Well That Ends Well concludes its performances today at 2 PM, at All Saint’s Episcopal Church – 21 North Court St., in Frederick, MD.