From the very first time boy met girl, the road to romance has had many twists, turns, dead ends and detours. The timeless, inarguable truth is, love is messy. Despite many fairy tales to the contrary, happy endings are not guaranteed.

Perhaps that's why Shakespeare's "All's Well the Ends Well," once classified as one of his comedies, is now considered a "problem play," for its ends cannot be tied up neatly.

Well, that, and the fact that it's just not one of his more popular works.

That said, the current production, now playing in ISU's Westhoff Theatre, is not without merit. In fact, with lavish costumes and impressive scenery, its viewing is time well spent.

The saga follows the romantic fantasy of the orphaned Helen, who has fallen for the son of her guardian, the Countess de Rousillon. Helen, though the only child of an esteemed physician, is considered lowly born, and is viewed by Bertram, the object of her affection, as beneath him.

He heads to France to join the King's army. Helen follows, and discovers the King in ill health. She offers to use the knowledge she gained at her father's knee to heal him, if he would promise to arrange for her marriage to Bertram should she succeed.

Helen succeeds in restoring the King to good health, and he makes good on his promise though Bertram, who with a roll of the eyes, quickly flees into combat to get away from her.

But not before making it clear that he would never consider Helen his wife, until she can pull off the impossible: Trick him into fathering her child and acquiring his family's signet ring. What's a girl to do?

She follows him, of course, and discovers he is quite the ladies man who has wasted no time in wooing an Italian maiden named Diana. Helen convinces Diana's mother that Bertram is already married to her, and she and her daughter join the bride in her trickery to capture her wandering husband.

This production, adapted and directed by Enrico Spada, is beautifully set in the mid-18th century thanks to the efforts of scenic designer Kim Lartz, costume designer Megan Wood, and hair/makeup artisan Ian Liberman.

Impressive performances by Daniel Balsamo, as Parolles, Bertram's vain and conniving companion, and Asa Wallace, as Lavatch, a fool in the Court of Rousillon, provide the evening's lighter moments.

Anthony Thomas Harden, as the King of France, gives a commanding and authentic performance, bringing his scenes into clearer focus. If only he had been in more of them.

Other notable turns were offered by Paige Brantley, as Helen, Katie MacLauchlan, as Diana, and Robert Hunter Bry as Bertram.

For today's audiences, it may be difficult to accept that any woman would be interested in a man who treated her as callously as Bertram does Helen. However, the course of true love is never smooth, and this centuries-old tale is wonderfully revisited with this production.

Stiller is a freelance writer who reviews plays for The Pantagraph.


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