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Laughs abound in 'All's Well'

CAMBRIDGE -- The Actors' Shakespeare Project is on a roll. This season's production of ''King Lear" with Alvin Epstein is heading to New York, while the home fires are ablaze with a production of the rarely performed ''All's Well That Ends Well" that could turn the most hardened Shakespeare-phobe into a phile.

Phat chance, you say? Rest assured: This is Shakespeare the way it's supposed to be performed. The troupe plays to the crowd hilariously, speaks Elizabethan verse beautifully, and posits a smart interpretation of the play.

Director Benjamin Evett, who also runs the company, adds salacious clowning and old English songs (which sound like an early '60s Joan Baez playlist) to a love story that veers between Elizabethan notions of romantic love and contemporary fears about obsessive love, a la ''Fatal Attraction."

Of all the delights in this production, it's mandatory to start with John Kuntz. He's in classic form with his libidinous take on the clown, Lavatch -- groping Paula Plum's breasts at any opportunity, coming out into the audience to flirt lasciviously.

And the clowning is what Kuntz does in his spare time. He also plays one of the romantic leads, Bertram, the object of Helena's affections. He doesn't return her love but instead wants to cut a rakish swath through the female population of France.

It's here that Kuntz's acting and Evett's direction are particularly impressive. Kuntz makes Bertram a fairly sympathetic character rather than a young cad. After Helena (Jennie Israel) cures the King of France from his ailments, he tells her she can have anyone she wants as her mate, and she opts for the high-born Count of Rossillion, Bertram.

His ''Who, me?" reaction is conveyed smartly by Kuntz. That he eventually accepts her is often seen as a traditional happy ending, though Evett, Kuntz, and Israel provide a more ambiguous spin.

Israel's portrayal of Helena adds to the sense of mystery. Her quivering voice and heaven-bent eyes bespeak a certain formality that seems somewhat out of place with the more relaxed style of acting of her colleagues. On the other hand, the Shakespearean poetry comes across best when she is speaking, and perhaps some of her formality is meant to convey her obsessiveness with Bertram.

The supporting cast is sensational. The idea behind Actors' Shakespeare Project was to unite the area's best Shakespearean actors outside of the American Repertory Theatre into one troupe. And as you watch Plum (the Countess of Rossillion), Allyn Burrows, Bobbie Steinbach, David Gullette, and the others here, you have to say they've succeeded brilliantly. (Another member of the company, Sarah Newhouse, is shining brightly in ''The Sweetest Swing in Baseball" with Boston Theatre Works.)

Another aspect of the company is that it's always on the move. Here Evett makes excellent use of the tight Cambridge Family YMCA Theatre space. White banners with blue emblems offer all the backdrop that's needed as the actors move in and out fluidly, sometimes changing onstage. It isn't a short production, but you probably won't be tempted to look at your watch.

The music adds to the charm -- the actors are very nice singers -- though I would have opted for solo piano rather than piano and violin. But the production lives up to its title. After this year's ''King Lear" and ''All's Well That Ends Well," Actors' Shakespeare Project has to be listed as a local treasure.

Ed Siegel can be reached at

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