For their 10th anniversary, Shakespeare in Clark Park presents The Winter’s Tale, and their take on the play with the infamous stage directions features “a chorus of Philadelphia children,” original music, and a giant bear puppet. Unfortunately, the production does not always live up to its artistic aspirations.
The set, by scenic designer Melpomene Katakalos, consists of a central platform that contains a few benches and two white metal gates; the structure is flanked by two long drapes of royal blue cloth and strung with outdoor lights. The drapes are occasionally repurposed, binding Hermione’s hands at her trial and concealing her “statue” in the final scene, or wrapping the stage (and at times the youth chorus, providing the scenery) in blue, mummy-style, when the action is in Bohemia. However, given their imaginative potential, they seem sadly underused for any other specific stage dressings or special effects.
A similar complaint could be made of the acting. Perhaps necessitated by the occasionally unreliable sound system and the far-flung audience in Clark Park, the cast adopts a very broad and very loud style; as a result their characters’ portrayals are extremely one-note, played at maximum volume. It’s not a good fit for the wildly varying emotions of the play.
However, this approach is not entirely without success. Bi Jean Ngo’s dynamic performance as Hermione and Autolycus imbues both roles with a welcome energy. With the former, Ngo provides a welcome depth to the proceedings with Hermione’s extroverted hospitality and passionate defense of her innocence; with the latter, she livens any scene with Autolycus’ unrepentant attitude. Likewise, young Niall Kaplowitz steals the beginning of the show as Mamillius, supplying a youthful exuberance as he leaps on his co-stars and handling his lines with a confidence that actors years his senior might envy. Gracie Martin (Perdita) manages an excellent balance between ingenuous and practically-minded: she is sweet but sharp, and (when oblivious to all else except Brandon Pierce’s Florizel) charmingly goofy.
Jillian Keys’ costume design riffs on modern dress, though with a few touches to retain some ambiguity. Leontes’ cerulean, diagonally-zippered sportcoat with black trousers and black and tan loafers would be unique in any decade; Polixenes pairs khaki shorts with a patterned gray velvet blazer and matching medieval pillbox hat for some kingly business casual. Hermione’s cream-colored sheath dress, meanwhile, has a timeless elegance. The citizens of the two kingdoms of Sicilia and Bohemia each have their own style: the former prefer a slightly more formal style (skirts, dresses, or pants and vests) with neon yellow accessories, while the latter favor the color blue and stick to casual cutoffs, rompers, and ponchos. Special mention must go to Autolycus’ outfits and her quick changes from a rock star goth in black lace cargo pants and a striped bustier to a lost rave partygoer, groovy trinket seller, and snooty noblewoman.
The production’s biggest problems are not in concept, but in execution. Director Kittson O’Neill attempts to counterbalance the tragedy of the first acts with the comedy of the latter, but both are too flattened by the acting; combined with the leisurely pacing, the dramatic tension is underdeveloped. The role of the chorus is performed by the youth chorus in several well-choreographed numbers. However, ushering them onstage takes a certain amount of time, and having the lines chanted by two dozen small children, no matter how talented, is detrimental to listening comprehension. Combined with recurring problems with the sound system, and the normal challenges for an outdoor performance on a windy day, a distracting proportion of the play’s dialogue is lost or garbled. The background music by composer and sound designer Robert Kaplowitz lacks thematic unity. The transition from setting-neutral New Age-y instrumental music in Sicilia to the funky recognizable hits of Bohemia is abrupt instead of contrastive, for all that the individual pieces are nicely done; the choice of a Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings’ cover of “This Land is Your Land” for the closing song is puzzling.
O’Neill does manage to pull off several fun sequences in the production. Emendations to the text eliminate the compulsive need to bring the outspoken Paulina back under male control by safely marrying her off. The Dance of the Satyrs in Act IV is replaced with the modern equivalent of traditional festival group dance, the Cha Cha Slide. But by far the most exciting scene is the appearance of the infamous bear in Act III. Created by master puppet designer Aaron Cromie, the bear is a massive geodesic construction piloted by half-a-dozen actors underneath it like a Chinese dragon. It appears at the top of the bowl of Clark Park and slowly but inexorably makes its way down the slope towards the unwitting Antigonus (Corinna Burns). Antigonus sets Perdita down and prepares to leave, only to turn and realize the baby has attracted the attention of the bear. Burns has portrayed Antigonus as entirely cowed by the tyranny of her king; now, she finds her courage and lures the bear away from Perdita with a cry of “This is the chase!” – and is promptly devoured before she can even manage an exit. The bear lurks onstage for several tense moments, before the mood is unexpectedly broken by a farting noise and the ejection of Burns, now portraying the Old Shepherd, from the bear’s back end. It’s an audacious and hilarious way to signal the play’s shift from tragedy to pastoral comedy.
However, one wishes that the care and creativity that went into this scene were as evident in the rest of the production. The legacy of past productions of Shakespeare in Clark Park has set high standards, and though cast and crew make a game attempt, they cannot quite meet them. It seems the highlights of The Winter’s Tale must tide audiences over until summer comes again.