“All’s Well That Ends Well” is not about another tragic heroine, doomed to unhappiness in a world of conniving men. At Pasadena’s A Noise Within Theatre, it’s all about the tornado of fresh air blowing into a 400-year-old play. For instance, the wisdom of a female Fool — wait, what? There’s a female Fool in the canon?
By Melanie Hooks
There is now. Director Nike Doukas casts a gentlewoman’s unnamed Clown as a woman — Lavatch, played with verve, precision and enormous presence by Kodi Jackman. A perfect foil to the self-indulgent, preening male Parolles (Rafael Goldstein, never better), who remains central to the circle of romantic lead Bertram (Mark Jude Sullivan) and that court’s unofficial (but far more foolhardy) Fool.
She’s a character we didn’t know we needed until she existed — to joke about her own lust and to remind her employer, the Countess (Deborah Strang), that the flesh is the real animator of most unions, not holy matrimony. The Countess’s knowing laughter between her Clown and her own Courtier Rinalda (Trisha Miller), also recast as female, includes them all, a joke now shared between women. Strang’s first chortles as the Countess here might be the first time a woman in this career-making role was laughing with her own sex and not at it. This revelatory sequence is the third scene in the play, and just one of a complete vision that serves up a traditionally problematic comedy as a wonderful ride, full of the romantic foibles and desires of everyone involved.
This isn’t a token effort or one that falls short. Resident Artist Kasey Mahaffey (here playing First Lord Dumaine) commented in rehearsal that Yes, it is wonderful to see a woman for once getting to make the bawdy jokes. But more importantly, as sparkling lead Erika Soto notes, her character Helen “takes up space.” Soto loves that Helen demands and fights for what she wants, challenges social norms and refuses to surrender. So does every woman represented, and in a play with roots in the deeply misogynist, European past, that is no small feat.
In fact, this spirit of empowerment does not limit itself to the female characters or cast. Doukas has frequently worked with A Noise Within (ANW)’s repertory company as a text and accent coach, but this is her first solo director outing with them. [Doukas has also directed at Antaeus, her home company, among others, and is prepping “The Outgoing Tide” at Northeast Rep.] Her spirit of generosity, in expanding the female representation so that the play sings as a lively back-and-forth instead of two women pitted against the system, pays off enormously.
Doubtless the Resident Artists felt comfortable in rehearsals with Doukas, due to previous work together, but there’s an ease of performance, a comfort in each artist, that extends production-wise. Surely Doukas’s Stage Manager Alyssa Escalante plays some part in that; no director operates alone. Actors at ANW never seem to be speeding through Shakespeare; they do know what they’re saying, which helps us know, and Dramaturg Dr. Miranda Johnson-Haddad must be credited as well for audience clarity. Soaring sets by Frederica Nascimento and lavish costumes, the kind that glitter as only fantastical comedies warrant, by Angela Balogh-Calin, relax the audience immediately and allow the breathing room that a silly plot needs, so that its emotional cores of forgiveness and resilience can grab us when we least expect them.
From the most established of the bill to the greenest players, each shines with the confidence of a cast that trusts one another and their director. From Strang’s delightfully genuine turn as the Countess to the always strong but newly confident (and funny) Jeremy Rabb as courtier Lafeu, familiar faces take on new aspects and intonations warmly welcome on the ANW stage. Mahaffy as First Lord Dumaine deftly leads a merry band of courtiers intent on revealing Parolles’s lack of character. New Guest Artists Niek Versteeg and Will Block, both earn laughs and moments of their own, not easy to do amongst a large and distinguished cast. Original music by John Ballinger gives the trio a wonderful moment to shine in a misguided serenade, as well as provides Sullivan’s Bertram with one of his only comedic moments to shine. (His foppish costume by Calin adds a beautifully over-the-top touch.
The wooing of Diana (the grounded, lovely Nicole Javier) is a moment especially difficult in the original play. Helen has legally won her man by curing the king (by turns, a delightfully cranky and joyous Bernard K. Addison), but has yet to win her new husband’s heart. In fact, he’s intent on bedding Diana. Instead, Helen intercepts the young virgin and convinces her and her mother (the sharp-witted Desiree See Jung) to agree to bed Bertram, then allow Helen herself to spend the night with him instead and thus, consecrate their union at last. A little icky? Oh yes. Unusual for the Bard? Not especially.
What is special: this is the moment when the women of the play truly come together as allies. Javier, Jung, and especially Soto own this moment, conspiring to win a man they all agree may or may not be worthy of the effort. In fact, conspiracies rule the second half of the play (think rom-com formulas — the Big Lie to win your sweetie’s affection — how much has really changed?).
Far from the official court, characters and actors sink their teeth into their roles and play, play, play…They give Resident Artists and frequent leads Soto (as Helen) and Goldstein (as Parolles) their finest moments so far on ANW’s stage.
Now in their early 30s, these actors at last command attention for their willingness to take risks, to leave more staid, consciously learned stagecraft behind. Both find new corners of their emotional range and expressiveness in “All’s Well”. In other words, they’re beginning to inhabit themselves as artists uniquely, with the kind of confidence that comes only with maturity and experience. That alone is worth the price of the ticket.
But the company itself is growing too — casting more diversely, yes, but also choosing more diverse stories, exploring corners of the canon previously ignored or seldom seen. The last two years have been devastating for theaters worldwide, but ANW this season is showing another, incredibly exciting result — new eyes for a new world.
*Post-show conversations with the artists on Feb 25, 27 and March 4. Performances: Thursday, March 3, 7:30 pm; Friday, March 4 & Saturday, March 5, 8 pm; Saturday, March 5 and Sunday March 6, 2 pm.
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