A Winter’s Tale is an odd play, esteemed one of Shakespeare’s “Romances” along with Tempest, Cymbeline, Pericles and sometimes Two Noble Kinsmen. Others deem it a problem in its inability to be classified as either comedy or tragedy, and for it’s reliance on the supernatural to achieve a happy ending accepted with a puzzled brow. Another common theme running through these plays is redemption, again leading the audience to perhaps question the validity of the redeemed, the manner in which it is achieved, and the sweeping of the play’s tragic elements under the stage floor, if you will. These plays are difficult to stage. What do we do, for instance in A Winter’s Tale, with Mamillius, who dies of anxiety and despair over his mother’s harsh treatment and undue imprisonment? How happy can we be that Leontes, King of Sicilia, achieves redemption at the end of the play; that he is forgiven for his jealousy, treachery, and his inadvertent murder of his young son and of Antigonus (husband to Paulina, defender of Hermione, and the pursued of a bear)? And then there’s the statue that places fate in the hands of Paulina. A production must cast its own magic in order to bring this play to life.
The Marin Shakespeare Company conjures a unique production by making Time a central character. In Shakespeare’s play, Time acts as Chorus, entering and exiting the play at the beginning of Act 4 in a matter of thirty-two lines, and for the sake of moving time ahead some sixteen years. Directors Leslie and Robert Currier cast Matthew Cavanna to keep Time over this three hour production. Cavanna’s tall thin frame is dressed in black, entangled in some sheer netting, and hooded in an imposing black cloak, his left eye blacked in a theatrical sort of mimeset. Cavanna puts his past three years of “pursuing interests in movement, sound, and the ritual of personal transformation” to good use in this production, opening the stage playing a six foot didgeridoo that he handles with precision. This ritualistic instrument is thought to achieve communication across long distances, which is certainly applicable in A Winter’s Tale considering the lost Perdita. Cavanna is onstage for most of the production, whether breathing life into the didgeridoo, keeping time with clapsticks or some other makeshift instrument, spinning clockwise, or seemingly convulsing to the action before him. At times he sits with upright posture in observance or in wait. He is also the vessel through which Apollo speaks his unheeded oracle, and many times throughout the production we are reminded of Time’s omnipotence as he not only speeds time, but at times stops it altogether. He is not unbiased; he observes the other characters, showing emotion and distress as well as mild pleasure when entertained. He’s a unique expansion in this play, and almost never overkill (almost) on the convulsions that almost make sense. Cavanna also morphs into the famous stage direction of the bear that chases Antigonus offstage. This scene is dark and proves a frightening change from it’s more commonly comedic staging.
Rafael Untalan plays the jealous King Leontes, and unfortunately for the otherwise well-cast production, Untalan doesn’t quite fit. It’s as though Untalan read through a 1930s guide to acting, telling him to over-gesture, to saw in the air too much with his hand, and to forget to incorporate temperance into his passion (thank you, Hamlet, for the sound advice to the contrary). Untalan comes across as oddly and inappropriately comical, evangelical, unstable and sarcastic, and is a sore thumb on this stage. This is a tough break considering he is a lead character. Untalan is further outshined by his perceived frenemy, Polixenes, played by the exotically eye-lined and bejeweled Scott Coopwood with passion and presence.
George Maguire and Drew Hirshfield take the comedic reigns in this production as the Shepherd and Young Shepherd, portraying the dimwitted yet loveable father/son duo with quick tongues. Maguire adds more to the already silly conversations by speaking with a mostly consistent twang in his voice and repeating the last word of his Hirshfield’s lines. It’s tough to take your eyes off of Maguire’s antics and expressions even when he’s not the focal point of the scene. And speaking of scenes, Time intervenes in Maguire and Hirshfield’s discovery of the infant Perdita with two stuffed lambs in an hysterical nativity scene to remember.
After being pursued by a bear as Antigonus, Jeffrey Hoffman embodies the role of the Autolycus, the pick pocketing peddler whose name and thieving ways take root in Greek mythology, in which he is referred to as the Prince of Thieves. Hoffman’s comedic vigor somewhat wanes in an overdrawn slapstick scene during which he recovers an abundance of purses, a banana and a bra out of his coat, yet Hoffman and his outstuck tongue engages the audience in many a laugh, as well as a brief aside/pun when he encounters Maguire and Hirshfield who carry the fardel in which they found the infant Perdita. Hoffman takes the opportunity to sneak a side step toward the audience and ask, “Who would fardels bare?” with a knowing smile.
Alexandra Matthew is a sympathetic and noble Hermione, and her long lost daughter Perdita, played by MSC newcomer Kate Fox Marcom, carries her stage mother’s nobility, as well as her own grace and demeanor. Marcom is young, fresh-faced, and a stunning girl. She brings her decade-long studies at San Francisco’s City Ballet to the stage as a standout among the other rustic peasants as they dance to composer Billie Cox’s original orchestral music. Cox, who won the 2007 Falstaff Award for her work on MSC’s Complete Works, has composed an exciting and adventurous score for this production, from airs of eastern fantasy incorporating chimes and oboe, to joyful and celebratory orchestral tidings. Gabriel Cowger plays Hermione’s other child, Mamillius, and proves more focused and on point than his stage father. His big yet brief scene during which he begins to tell “a sad tale” is unfortunately downplayed off to the side of the stage, thus downplaying his own tragedy and thus one of the “problems” of this “Problem Play.”
Bruce Lackovic’s simple set design changes from the cold and icy blue and white of Leontes’ kingdom, to garlands of flowers for the sheepsheering game, during which the male peasants toss fardels of freshly sheared wool around in a competition reminiscent of musical chairs. Mind you, there are no chairs involved. The scene is exhilarating and offers the feeling of what these peasants may have actually done during such springtime celebrations. Abra Berman’s costume design is also simple yet appropriate, with white and gold draped silks at court versus more colorful and sometimes spritely attire for the peasants.
The most potent player on this stage is Celia Madeoy. Madeoy plays Paulina as a feisty and tough little scrapper who uses her sharp tongue well. It’s made abundantly clear that Paulina has a shrewish reputation in this play, and that she is one woman not to me messed with. For every insult the men in Leontes’ court spit, Madeoy spits back stronger and with just a turn can make the strongest man jump back. She unfortunately doesn’t have the last laugh in the play as she’s shuffled off with a look of horror in the final scene upon the meeting of her newly arranged husband, Camillo (Michael Ray Wisely). Something tells me that if there was an Act 6 to this production, we’d learn that Madeoy somehow bewitched her way out of this situation.
The overall feeling at the end of this production is mixed, not only appropriately because this is a puzzling of the brow “Problem Play,” but because there are many problems in this particular production. It’s a mixture of good ideas and good acting and not-so-much. The end result is unfortunately disjointed. Perhaps the aside our Hamlet-inspired Autolycus should have offered his audience is a more honest proclamation that “The time is out of joint.”