The women of Shakespeare are often notoriously strong, dagger-tongued personalities adept at outsmarting their male counterparts.
In Shakespeare in Delaware Park's production of "All's Well That Ends Well," director Derek Campbell has focused on the love-struck Helena (Kate LoConti), a character whose cunning, charm and penchant for manipulation finds echoes in famous women throughout literature and history.
Campbell has moved the setting for Shakespeare's complex comedy from the Elizabethan era to the Edwardian, an approach that succeeds in making its modern feminist connotations more evident. One is almost immediately reminded of Princess Diana of Wales, who, like Helena, used her fierce intelligence and grace to woo an otherwise wayward and obstinate aristocrat.
In Helena's case, that aristocrat is Count Bertram (played by newcomer Andy Moss), who is an unfortunate and stuck-up man trapped in mental adolescence. When the low-born Helena fails to catch his eye, she embarks on a devious and questionable scheme to force their marriage. He flees fast, and she follows faster, intent on reeling him in at any cost. In the course of her pursuit, Helena gains the trust of Bertram's mother and plays many of the minor characters like a kid plays hopscotch.
The play is wonderfully acted. Robert Rutland, who plays the ailing King of France, shows his Shakespearean chops for the first time on the Delaware Park stage, and his fresh and dynamic performance makes us wonder what took him so long.
Lisa Ludwig shines as Count Bertram's eminently mannered mother, whose transformation from serpent to dove is great fun to observe. As memorable comic characters go, Tom Loughlin takes the cake as Parolles, the blundering and unscrupulous soldier whose cowardice undoes him. Loughlin's skill at physical comedy and deft timing - especially in an exchange with Helena on the subject of virginity - produce the heartiest laughs in the show.
But the gleaming diamond in this production is LoConti, whose forceful Helena contains an easy and modern irreverence imbued with irresistible grace. She makes Helena's dubious plans - to trick Betram into marriage by stealing his ring and conceiving his child - seem almost honorable by employing a kind of revolutionary forthrightness that Campbell highlights.
Ken Shaw's costumes, from this red-clad soldiers to the countess' glimmering dresses, perfectly capture the aristocratic aplomb and haughtiness of the Edwardian period. Campbell's eye and ear for modern humor is evident in too many spots to mention, but reaches its apex in a scene containing four eligible bachelors, each impeccably dressed in Shaw's cricket-playing outfits. Each one assumes a dapper, nonchalant stance as they are turned down, one after the other, by the coolhearted Helena.
Lighting designer Brian Cavanagh also deserves credit for creating an enchanting effect of moonlight in an outdoor scene that came just after dusk.
As Campbell suggests in the playbill, there is something bubbling under this play, a "dark, troubled interior" that belies its supposedly comic nature. The play has so many questions and facets to explore that a lesser production might have confused them by focusing on too many at once. By casting "All's Well" as Shakespeare's closest approximation of feminism, the play transcends comedy and becomes something much deeper.
Where: Shakespeare in Delaware Park
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays through July 15
Directions: Delaware Park, between Hoyt Lake and the Rose Garden