One of the positives of the American Globe Theatre’s modest, but respectable mounting of The Winter's Tale, directed by John Basil, is the nice, brisk pace at which the production moves. A lot of this, I suspect, has to do with the fact that the text was shaved to allow for a more events-driven play, although it is at the expense of stage time for some interesting secondary characters. Another significant plus is the two-level set design by Kevin Lee Allen, which is ambitious, intriguing, and offers more potential for innovative staging than this, frankly, somewhat “safe” production takes advantage of. The same can be said of the principal actors’ performances, although there are some endearing exceptions. Ultimately, this Winter's Tale is meant to be polite and wholesome Shakespeare when the story itself is anything but.
The American Globe Theatre was founded in 1989 and is about to bring its 19th season to a close. According to its literature, AGT, a 48-seat venue on the third floor of the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, is the longest running classical theatre in midtown Manhattan, which is no small feat, given the short life span of any Off-Off Broadway theatre company of any genre in New York City. In addition to the mainstage productions, which are mostly classics-oriented, AGT is also an outreach teaching entity that brings Shakespeare to public schools as well as a conservatory that trains professional actors in honing their approach to classical texts. AGT is also recognized for its dedication to examining and performing Shakespeare through the use of the First Folio.
Like The Tempest, The Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare’s last plays, and with redemption and forgiveness as its major themes. Unlike The Tempest, The Winter's Tale has a straightforward plot. And keeping with its “darkest before the dawn” motif, the first half (through Act III) is a very mature, dark and disturbing story indeed.
Set in the ancient times of Roman polytheism in a land where Apollo was chief god and oracle, Leontes, King of Sicilia, is married to the beautiful, vivacious Hermione, who has already given him a young son, Mamillius, and is very pregnant with their second child. After a prolonged visit from his boyhood friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia, Leontes becomes irrationally, homicidally convinced that Hermione has cuckolded him with Polixenes and that neither Mamillius nor the unborn child are the fruits of his loins.
Despite the protestations of his closest court counsel—defying even the Oracle of Apollo—the egomaniacal Leontes commands the reign of terror to begin. Polixenes runs for his life back to Bohemia. The innocent little Prince Mamillius dies. After enduring unspeakable atrocities during her wrongful incarceration, Hermione finally gives birth to a baby girl, who is promptly removed from her to be disposed of. And after delivering her famous eloquent speech of innocence and heartbreak that falls on Leontes’s deaf ears when she answers to the charges of treason, etc., Hermione is also “removed” and declared dead.
But, ostensibly, in the spirit of winter-into-spring rebirth, the second half of The Winter's Tale (Act IV) takes place 16 years later.It’s almost another play entirely which indulges in the tried-and-true stock comedic elements of mistaken identity, monarchs traveling incognito, and deaths that may or may not have been faked so that ultimately truth, justice and virtue can triumph.
While, to its credit, this production keeps from wavering until almost the very end, the second half is more successful, which is a bit of a disappointment since so much of the meat of the play is in the first half. Richard Fay as Leontes starts out very well, but eventually allows the over-the-top nature of the role to lure him into unrestrained scenery chewing and, as importantly, Fay loses his grip on the language. On the other hand, Elizabeth Keefe as Hermione, while the very essence of a proper noblewoman, seems a bit too detached and precise. In the Act III, Scene 2 judgment scene, even though she has dark circles under her eyes and her prison gown is tattered and bloodstained, she doesn’t seem to have endured much more than being sent to bed without supper a few times rather than the horrors, no doubt, to which Hermione must have been subjugated.
Robert Lee Taylor as the doomed Antigonus, and especially Diedre Da Silva as the loyal, outspoken Paulina fare best in the first half, despite the fact that their roles are abbreviated for this production. I could be wrong, but I honestly don’t remember hearing Paulina’s “What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me?” speech. Da Silva is a terrific actor, and it is a disappointment to not hear her take on this very challenging monologue. Both Taylor and Da Silva make playing their characters their first priority, and as a result, the language seems much richer and the actual dialogue more comprehensible.
Moving on to the second half, 16 years after Hermione’s baby daughter has been found on the shores of Bohemia by a simple shepherd and his even simpler son, we get to lighten up and finally have a little fun. Geoffrey Barnes shines as the Clown (Shepherd’s son), but Mat Sanders really steals the show as the con man Autolycus. Special mention should also go to Christina Shipp who is delightful as Perdita. While yet unskilled in royal artfulness, she is nonetheless every bit her mother’s daughter, as she proves in her fierce devotion to her lover, Prince Florizel.
While this Winter's Tale has many admirable aspects, ultimately it feels academic, as though it’s one of AGT’s productions intended for schools and young audiences rather than the sort of risk-taking theatre for adults that one would hope for from an Off-Off Broadway venue.