It was a strange feeling to watch Philadelphia Artists' Collective's production of
All's Well That Ends Well
this week. The best thing about Shakespeare, what keeps us coming back to him century after century, is how adaptable his work is to our present circumstances, whatever they may be. But pretty much everyone can agree that right now, no matter which side of the political divide one occupies, all is not well.
So it seems odd that PAC chose to produce this fairly apolitical problem play. It's a tragicomedy about a nobleman (Akeem Davis' Bertram) who, when forced to marry an adoring commoner (Melanie Stefan-Watts' Helena), chooses instead to escape to the battlefield and beds of gullible virgins until he is tricked into returning home to his wife.
Director Dan Hodge sets the play in the Edwardian era, though it's unclear why, as the stage at Broad Street Ministry is an unadorned hardwood floor surrounded by audience risers. Without a set or props - while Katherine Fritz's period costumes and cellist Mari Ma's original music and accompaniment work just fine - nothing seems connected to a larger point, and the whole endeavor feels unmoored.
Hodge clearly wants to highlight Shakespeare's language (though some characters also inexplicably add anachronistic comments) and his actors' performances, which he does with this very strong cast. Laural Merlington's black-clad Countess of Rousillon casts a powerful figure among the misbehaving men, and both Damon Bonetti's rakish Parolles and Brian McCann's bitter clown Lavatch bring a sharp edge to their humor.
But theater doesn't occur in a vacuum. While PAC's is undoubtedly a technically solid entry, who does this production serve? If it's kids who haven't seen the play before, why place it at the turn of the 20th century, and why such a bare-bones aesthetic? If it's for the love of the Bard, why not choose a more relevant piece: Richard III or The Merchant of Venice, for example? Since the presidential campaign dragged on for a year and half, there was no shortage of time for planning, and there's definitely no shortage of material from which to choose.
Nobody knows whether the true outcome of this fractious election will end well (though many have their suspicions). Shakespeare believed that at the very least theater had an obligation to not only hold a mirror up to nature, but also to hold it up to the body politic.
I wish director Hodge took the opportunity to do the same.
All's Well That Ends Well
Through Dec. 17, presented by the Philadelphia Artists' Collective at the Broad Street Ministry, 315 S. Broad St.