These modernizations add a rock star spin to Shakespeare's tale of misguided love. Is this one of the many Bard bastardizations that roll in over the summer, or can blessed unrest invigorate the classic with pop culture? As it turns out, the company achieves both in a production that is sure to send purists to an early grave; it may, however, send a younger and hipper theater crowd to the box office. Director Lucy Smith Conroy throws cable news, karaoke, and other anachronisms into the timeless text, but she does so with a sense of professionalism. The result is reminiscent of an Aquila Theater production for a fashion crowd. Set designer Michael Brown rolls out a red carpet as the young, attractive cast takes the stage like a catwalk. They model Emily Brandt's rebel-chic costumes with Brian Scott's angular lighting as they walk to Jill B.C. DuBoff's music, which ranges from tango to post-punk.
As originally conceived, the play takes place in Renaissance France and concerns a beautiful peasant girl's journey toward the discovery of love. When Helena's father dies, the Countess of Rousillon takes her into her home, but the play actually begins as Helena has become enamored with her son Bertram. The mother approves of the match, but the son is none too thrilled, so the crafty Helena seeks the king's assistance. She cures the monarch's fatal illness and enlists his help in getting Bertram's hand. Then the young rebel joins the Florentine army to escape his persistent belle.
Maria Mercedes Cole's adaptation and Conroy's direction take obvious liberties with the script. While Shakespeare seems like an unlikely karaoke enthusiast, this play has Bertram woo Diana with a microphone and the Bee Gees' "Juliet." Some of the scenes receive a mock telecast via France's Royal News Network. These modern riffs seem like a post-graduate attempt to fuse high and low culture; the experiments sometimes work and sometimes come across as kitsch, pure and tedious.
The pop treatment puts a celebrity spin on Bertram's character. The rebel-rebel nobleman has a rock anthem to guide him, while his punk confidante Parolles sports a studded belt and leather wristband. You might find any of their friends at a concert given by a local garage band. This interpretation stresses a teen angst in the characters that the text actually supports; Bertram's male flight comes to life and Helena's crush recalls that of a schoolgirl.
The performances follow suit. Jessica Burr's Helena enters the stage weeping behind her tinted sunglasses; she wears a black dress of mourning, not for her deceased father but for the boy who won't return her affections. Hers are the crocodile tears of a cartoonish character. Matt Opatrny's Bertram, with his pouty face and soft voice, is the show's teen heartthrob. Nick Konow's Parolles has the gleeful mischief as a punk rock Puck. In one scene, Darrell Stokes acts like a kind of karate King as he pounds his disrespectful subject to the ground. And Jesse Websters' clown wears a shiny rainbow shirt as he delivers his equally bright dialogue.
One performance in particular transcends the style of this production to highlight the character's humanity: Meghan Andrews as the Countess keeps herself incredibly grounded throughout. One scene begins with a spotlight on her weeping because Bertram has run away. Here, the actress could easily have parodied sadness in keeping with the prevailing tone of the show but, instead, her heartbreak is real. The tears roll down her cheek as she seethes with anger at her defiant son.
When Aquila modernized Much Ado About Nothing, the company stuck to a particular style, transplanting the play into a 1960s mod world. In contrast, All's Well That Ends...Well sometimes becomes a mishmash of different pop-cultural eras: Shakespeare meets Limp Bizkit, and The Prince meets The Pixies. The exciting young company blessed unrest, full of energy and ideas, will become even more exciting when its members learn to focus and channel their instincts more effectively.