Shakespeare’s female characters often can’t catch a break. Katherine in Taming of the Shrew can’t win by scorning men’s orders, while Hermione in The Winter’s Tale follows a man’s orders with tragic results.
But then an exception is offered alongside Hermione in the form of Paulina, in The Winter’s Tale production opening Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s 41st season in Buffalo. Lisa Vitrano portrays the loyal and brave Paulina with such ferocity that I’d want her on my side in a knife fight. Only she can talk back to Leontes (Matt Witten) the king of Sicilia, who is taken over by a mad jealousy that threatens to kill or wreck all around him. And by the story’s end, 16 years later, she succeeds in putting back together Leontes’ family, even though his capricious acts result in the death of her husband.
SDP chose to mount this problem play now because the company began its Shakespeare-in-the-park tradition with the same play in 1976 and is now ushering in a new era with a new stage and facilities. Regular attendees may not notice the changes right away because the stage maintains the same footprint and a similar, multi-level look. Now the stage can be manipulated for different settings and the structures housing the technical booth and souvenir sales are both new and more accessible.
What people will notice, however, is founding director Saul Elkins’ engaging version of this bi-polar play, ranging from its tragic beginnings to its often comic second half. Witten does a good job of maintaining Leontes’ simmering anger that occasionally erupts into full-blown rage. It’s downright frightening when he grabs Hermione (Jenn Stafford) by the wrist and throws her to the ground, accusing her of infidelity. His repentant second-half king is perhaps a little too subtle.
The text doesn’t explain why Leontes asks his wife to persuade his best friend, Polixenes, to extend his visit and then, when she has, comes to believe that Polixenes (Patrick Moltane) has fathered the child Hermione carries.
Stafford helps us at least partly understand Leontes’ leap by playing Hermione as a sexy, kittenish queen. Her portrayal of the faithful queen shows the greatest range in the cast, moving from regal and feline elegance, to concern over her accusing husband’s welfare, to the hopelessness of a prisoner, to the mother and wife overcome by joy that her daughter has been found and husband returned to his right senses.
Vitrano nearly steals the show in the first half as she holds her own against the king and all his men. When the king orders her husband Antigonus (Steve Braddock) to contain her, she rebuffs him with a single “talk to the hand” gesture that stops him in his tracks. Antigonus, ever faithful to his master, meets an untimely end when he takes Hermione’s newborn baby and leaves her on the shores of a bucolic Bohemia, the land ruled by Polixenes. We never see the bear that eats him, only hear its roars over the sound system and witness Antigonus stumble in his attempts to get away.
That sound system plagued the performance the night we saw the play, with microphones frequently stopping and starting and several sound cues made inaudible (SDP says they're working on the problem, which is related to digital signal interference). Some actors wore fully functioning equipment, but most of Marissa Biondolillo’s lines were lost as Mamillius (Leontes and Hermione’s son, who dies after his mother is disgraced) and as Perdita, their now-grown daughter, who was saved as a babe by shepherds.
As is often the case with this play, the pastoral and lighter second half makes up for the sturm und drang of the first. Everything seems different, even with the Renaissance-themed paintings and tapestry from the court hanging in the background. Ken Shaw’s costumes jump from the Downtown Abbey era in the first part to perhaps 35 years later with gypsy scarves, flowing skirts, Bermuda shorts, and Hawaiian shirts.
An engaging dance in Bohemia helps set the mood. All the scenes with the Old Shepard (Tim Joyce) and Clown (Jordan Louis Fischer) are delightful, as the pair have perfect comic timing. Fischer does a particularly fine job of miming Antigonus being dispatched by the bear at the end of the first half. Later, the pair takes the audience along for a roller coaster ride, rising and falling from sorrow to hilarity several times. They cap it off beautifully when, as the identity of Perdita’s royal lineage is revealed, they become newly minted gentlemen and lord their new status and fine clothes over an unimpressed aide to Paulina.
The rapscallion character Autolycus, a vendor who steals at least as much as he sells, is played with panache by Jordan Levin, who soothes his victims and the audience with a beautiful singing voice. He also charms the pants, shirt, hat, and belt off the unwitting clown in a delightfully choreographed bit, ending with the clown exiting in his long underwear, visible skid marks and all.
When all return to the court in Sicilia for the big reveal — Perdita is really a princess! Hermione didn’t die after all! Camillo has secretly had his eye on Paulina even though they spent the last 16 years in different countries! — the secret power behind the thrown becomes obvious. Paulina has masterminded much of the big reunion, keeping Hermione out of sight until Leontes’ heir was found and safely returned. And she even persuaded Leontes to not take a bride again until she gave him permission.
Once the king’s family is reunited, though, there’s no longer a power vacuum for Paulina to fill. Vitrano indicates Paulina’s move from power position to arranged marriage with a shrug, suggesting it was a good ride while it lasted. And so is this Winter’s Tale.