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A Glorious Bridge Between Countries, Theaters, Life and Death Hot

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Roseanne WellsRoseanne Wells   February 25, 2009  
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Photos: Joan Marcus

  • The Winter's Tale
  • by William Shakespeare
  • BAM: Brooklyn Academy of Music
  • February 10 - March 8, 2009
Acting 5
Costumes 5
Sets 5
Directing 5
Overall 5

The Bridge Project “was born out of a simple desire: a wish for artists, collaborators, and audiences on both sides of the Atlantic to experience one another’s work, talent, and artistry in the theater.” Sam Mendes, director of The Cherry Orchard and The Winter’s Tale to be played in repertory at Brooklyn Academy of Music, comments on the lack of communication between American and British theater. So starts a creative project involving many fine actors from each country, to cobble a temporary company built on each others' strengths. This production of The Winter’s Tale is an ensemble of wonder and devastation and beauty and mending, all possible from an observant eye to the text, and the imagination to go from there. Stephen Greenblatt, a noted professor at Harvard University and author of Will in the World, gave an accompanying Artist Talk on Sunday, February 15. His casual lecture and talkback expounded upon several prominent and often ambiguous themes, including language and its ability to alter according to the listener, the focus on an older generation’s mistakes and the youth born to reprieve them, and the political, emotional, sexual, and linguistic implications of the second chance. The talk provided insight into the text and possible interpretations of performing the play, and Greenblatt's charming scholasticism was put to good use in hashing out the details of this performance without spoiling its enchantments.

Mendes provides a fragile, meticulously considered world in which to unfold this story. Paul Arditti's sound design blends the subtle with the appropriately melodramatic, from the tick-tocking of Leontes’s warping mind set against delicate strings, to the thunderclap accompanying the news of Mamillius’s death. Catherine Zuber’s classic, flattering costumes demonstrate a keen eye for the male and female figure as well as for matching the turn of the century wash of the overall aesthetic. Anthony Ward’s stage is an intimate, vaguely Victorian gathering place: a table and three chairs with a chessboard and various activities ready to entertain the next user; a pile of plump, decorative pillows center stage invite lounging and relaxation, and a bed, stage right, where Mamillius sleeps after Leontes tucks him in. “O, call back yesterday, bid time return” is projected onto a sheer white curtain that is warmly lit by shades of royal purple. Center and upstage are lit by hurricane candles, some hanging from above, some on individual stands, some resting on symmetrical swings. These candles cast a soft light, making the stage a place of comfort and intimacy, while serving a dual purpose in preparation for the tempests to come, as hurricane candles are meant to protect the flame, providing light through dark and stormy weather.

The inner bedroom setting for this production makes the opening scene with Camillo and Archidamus superfluent, though Greenblatt defends its merits because it unfolds tension in the court, wrapped in flattering courtly language. Simon Russell Beale gives us an undiplomatic but gentle, playful Leontes, who is not solely paralyzed by fury and blind rage, but by panicky anxiety, which is later calcified by unchecked pride. Leontes’ complex response does not excuse his rash actions, but it does make his redemption more deserving. There is also a competitive nature added to the accusation: Josh Hamilton as Polixenes seems slightly younger than Leontes and shows great affection for Mamillius, adding the classic mid-life crisis and paternal complexes to the king’s delicate emotional state. Hamilton as Polixenes is very sweet-natured, not seeing the sexualized language that Greenblatt emphasized as the nature of Leontes’s error. Because Leontes sees sex seeping from every motion or word, no matter how innocent or unintentional, his perception can only lead to distrust, jealousy, and the disasters to come.

Hermione’s trial turns to the audience as we are the public made to witness this domestic affair hashed out in the courts. The atmosphere of the trial carries an otherworldly quality: the messengers who bring Apollo’s oracle are cast in an eerie backlit glow; Paulina and Hermione’s handmaidens sit stage right in a vertical row, reminiscient of the three Fates; Hermione, haggard in appearance and energy, defends herself with unnatural strength and clarity of wit after giving birth in prison; the oracle feather writes the prophecy, itself, on the table, which Leontes boldly denies with arms spread wide, chest high, daring the smiting to come. He takes this position again when he begs for the smiting in light of the devastating news, but he will not be so lucky. Greenblatt notes the similarity of Leontes to an Othello who is forced to live with killing his innocent wife.

Rebecca Hall as Hermione is stunning, largely pregnant in bold eggplant, with brassy majesty to match. She is truly a fine actress who can anchor a Shakespearean character in authentic emotional clarity. This Hermione does stretch the border in flirting with Polixenes, laying against his shoulder while on the cushions and such, but Paul Pyant’s lighting concept highlights asides and Leontes’s inner thoughts with soft-edged spots, blurring factual reality with Leontes’s mental justification. You can literally see Leontes throw his switch to outrageous jealousy when the shadows rush onstage. But what if it’s just in his head? The only person that confirms over and over that the nightmare is real is Paulina. Greenblatt talks of her as a strong female who brims with supernatural power, calling her a "white witch." Although not witchy like the sisters in Macbeth, Paulina pulses with the possibility of magic, which manifests in the possibility of being reborn through death and redeeming through repentance. Sinead Cusack’s Paulina, however, is a strict disciplinarian and is unflinching in her cold anger towards Leontes and his brutish mistakes. She swoops in—seemingly from out of town, called like Mary Poppins with thought to where she is needed—and Leontes knows her presence doesn’t look good for him. She never indulges him, and she even grabs the king’s face and shakes him when she tells of Hermione’s death.

But this play is not solely Leontes and his blundering; the young lovers and the silver-tongued trickster provide hope with laughter. Ethan Hawke plays Autolycus as a wickedly charming Johnny Cash mixed with Bob Dylan hobo. He throaty/raspy sing-speaks most of his lines, be it on his own or with accompaniment. Hawke's comedic timing, whether with a Jesus shtick or a grubby peddler that crosses Chris Robinson with Slash for added rock star quality, is spot on. The supporting cast also shows its comedic colors in a Bohemia-like, old-fashioned Americana prairie town, complete with rousing group song and partner dance, bawdy balloon play, and a pretty young virgin dressed as a goddess. A flowing green dress laden with flowers helps give Perdita (Morven Christie) an innocent, earthly goddess-like quality. Mendes double casts her as Mamillius, which she performs with youthful innocence, child-like affection, and carefree delight; Perdita seems to continue where Mamillius left off sixteen years before. As her betrothed prince, Michael Braun’s Florizel is amiable while also spilling over with poetic love for Perdita. Even Camillo (Paul Jesson), a steadying force with dignity and cool reason, lets his passion for Sicilia and its king shine through while in Bohemia.

Mendes’ true talent as a director is in the details: the stage hands, all in black, move the set as if a Greek chorus; the Old Shepard (Richard Easton) conjures Time before intermission, an element and a vehicle of fate; a large bear wanders aimlessly into the spotlight on Antigonus (Dakin Matthews) as he leaves the infant Perdita. Mendes’ conclusion to this tragic comedy, or however it can be categorized, contains so many well-sculpted moments, but to itemize them would be deadly to its magic. However, the production’s excellence isn’t singularly from the director’s artistic creation, the acumen of the technical collaborators, or the actors’ ephemeral performances. The desire to keep the material fresh, to always learn more and add that to the next performance, keeps a production of this caliber ongoing, never leaving room for stasis. When Greenblatt spoke, he noted that the cast was still discussing text that was cut from the revelation of Hermione, and how its nuances affected the emotional fabric of the scene and the ending of the play, with some wanting to reintroduce this element into the production. This dedication always shows itself in the work presented and makes all the difference when embarking on a timeless work of art.

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