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Sunday, September 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 56.0° F  Fair
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American Players Theatre's satisfying All's Well That Ends Well rises above that awkward plot
As Parolles, Jim DeVita steals all his scenes.
As Parolles, Jim DeVita steals all his scenes.
Credit:Zane Williams

The new American Players Theatre season is lighter on the Shakespeare than past years, with only two plays from the Bard. Saturday night's opening of All's Well That Ends Well showed that even given a sometimes ponderous plot, good acting and smart direction (from John Langs) will save the day and make the title ring true.

Helena, the orphaned daughter of a well-respected but poor physician, is being raised by the Countess of Rossillion and finds herself in love with the Countess' son Bertram. When his father dies, Bertram is dispatched to the French court, where the king is ailing. Helena follows him there, where she uses the wisdom and medicines her father passed down to her to cure the king.

The grateful king rewards her by promising her the hand of any suitor in the court. She chooses Bertram, who rudely rebukes her and disrespects the king. They are married despite Bertram's vehement opposition, and he immediately heads off to battle in Italy to avoid her. The rest of the play concerns the surprising ways in which she wins his love by meeting the outrageous demands he has imposed.

It was hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that Bertram wouldn't return the love of the sweet and kind Helena (APT newcomer Ally Carey, who has Julianne Moore's strawberry blonde loveliness), and, conversely, why Helena would be gaga over the selfish and immature Bertram (even though he's well-played by the handsome Matt Schwader). Carey is a wonderful addition to APT's arsenal of talent, radiating a genuine likeability that made me really root for her character. When Bertram refused to even give her a quick peck of a kiss after their wedding, her eyes dropped and her checks flushed, breaking my heart a little bit.

As Parolles, Bertram's cohort, Jim DeVita steals all his scenes as a rakish military man of questionable character sporting a smarmy little mustache and hair puffed up like his ego. Wearing a uniform festooned with scarves and medals, DeVita brings a big splash of color and levity to the proceedings. He is particularly cheeky in an early scene with Helena, in which they banter about virginity, and later when Lord Lafew (a stately John Pribyl) expresses his distaste for Parolles.

Tracy Michelle Arnold is both regal and kind as the Countess. Jonathan Smoots, as the French king who becomes a champion for Helena, convincingly plays the spectrum, teetering at the precipice of death, then showing renewed vigor and imperial demeanor.

Initially I wasn't a fan of Takeshi Kata's simple orange-to-red-ombré wooden posts and ornate gray fabric panels, but as the night progressed, they grew on me. Robert Morgan's Regency-era costumes are first rate: snappy uniforms for the men and a series of lovely gowns, particularly Helena's celadon green dress.

I always look forward to productions at APT, and it was another satisfying evening -- even though the plot is sometimes clunky. At the end of the production, lights illuminate the trees behind the stage, Helena is happy, and we are happy for her.

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