Director of Theater George Angell’s last play on a Hillsdale stage has challenged him with a green cast — mostly freshmen — and an unwieldy Shakespeare script. But his young actors have responded with only one thing: excitement.
The Tower Players opened Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well” Wednesday evening, and performances continue Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., with an additional Saturday performance at 2 p.m.
After 33 years at Hillsdale College, Angell is directing his last show on the Markel Auditorium stage. He said he chose the play primarily because of its title but also because he wanted to understand it more fully, as it is one of Shakespeare’s winding problem plays.
“My previous encounter directing the play back in 1989 left me feeling that there was more in the script to wrestle with than I had previously been able to pin down,” Angell wrote in the Director’s Note.
Angell decided to update the play for a modern audience by setting it in France during the 1960’s at the height of the Algerian War of Independence. The action is split between France and Africa, and remixes of the top hits from ’60s France play between scenes as the setting invites the audience to step back into the not-too-distant past.
“A lot of this play is about the hand-off from the older generation to the younger generation, at least from the King’s point of view. He is on his way out and he knows it,” said senior James Young, who plays the ailing King of France. “George picked it because of that reason. He is passing the mantle off to someone else too.”
“All’s Well That End’s Well” is one of Shakespeare’s less popular plays. Though it was published in the First Folio of 1623, the first recorded performance was in 1741.
The play centers on Helena (senior Glynis Gilio), the daughter of a physician who wants to marry Bertram (freshman Johannes Olson), the Count of Roussillon. Bertram rejects her advances and flees to fight in the war where he meets an Algerian woman named Diana and falls in love with her. Through scheming and trickery, however, Helena decides her own fate and, in the end, she marries Bertram.
Though the play is long, it has several plot reversals, sexual intrigue, and comedic scenes that pull the audience through a grand story. It is Shakespeare using all of his best plot devices: sex, love triangles, unconsummated marriages, and kidnapping.
Shakespeare also shocks audiences by giving a female character the traditional chivalric role.
Gilio flourishes in the role of Helena as she turns strict blank verse into conversational and comprehensible dialogue. And like a true Italian actor, she explains the often-enigmatic Shakespearian verse through her expressive face and hands with both coyness and fragility.
“Helena is really psychological,” Gilio said. “It is really fun for an actor to work in all the different levels that Shakespeare offers.”
Gilio’s imposing presence and her ability to convey a breadth of emotions makes her the perfect actress to portray such a powerful leading lady.
Though veteran actors lead the cast, more than half of the cast consists of freshmen new to the Tower Players.
“This time there has been a lot of emphasis on teaching because there are mostly freshmen and sophomores in the cast. George has spent a lot of time working on that process,” Young said.
Junior Amber Crump, in her first performance with the Tower Players, shines as Diana through her vivacious acting, clear dictive voice, and expressive eyebrows. She sets the tone for the second act in a scene with Helena and the Algerian women that brimmed with energy and movement.
Freshman Jake McKie is another bright point as Lavatch, the pot-bellied fool. Though McKie is a young actor, Bryan Simmons’ costuming ages him considerably and helped him clown around with great comedic timing and physical humor.
New actors like Crump and McKie show that a young cast has its advantages.
“One of the nice things about being with a lot of freshmen is that there is still that youthful enthusiasm for theater,” Young said.
Guest artist and member of the Actor’s Equity Association Jennifer Weil keeps a spark in the show through her portrayal of the Duchess. By maintaining attentive eyes and projecting her voice in a way only a seasoned performer could, she sets an example that young actors should emulate. She conveys the moral development of the Duchess with grace and poise through clear actions and emotions.
The professional leadership of Angell and Weil and the influence of Tower Player veterans like Gilio and Young help the young actors like Olson and Crump perform with a confidence well beyond their experience.
Though the complicated plot spins to a wild close, in the end, all is well: Bertram becomes the gentleman that France needs, and the mantle can be passed on to him with the crafty Helena bearing his son, the heir to France.
The King’s words snap the play to a fitting close: “All yet seems well; and if it end so meet, / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet.”