The Winter’s Tale is a tricky play to pull off. It’s a play of mystery and mysticism, but there is more mystery in the play’s composition and structure than in its plot and presentation. Did Shakespeare really know what he was doing when he wrote this play? When he so abruptly and without clear motive sends Leontes into a fit of jealous rage? When he clearly kills off a queen—Leontes visits the body—but apparently does not really kill her off (literature’s greatest red herring)? When he turns the heaviest of tragedies into the lightest of comedies within a minute of stage time? This seems the work of an amateur scriptwriter, not the world’s greatest playwright in the evening of his career.
Ah, but there is genius in this work, and it fully emerges in the ASC’s production at The Blackfriars, revealed not only in wonderful performances but, perhaps more importantly, through director Jim Warren’s academic alchemy.
It is easy to overlook Warren’s important contributions to the Blackfriars’s presentations. No sets and no effects mean no overarching directorial concepts; the productions focus solely on the texts, and the only extra-textual conception is in the costuming, in this instance Erin M. West’s fairy tale extravagance of a medieval Sicily and rustic Bohemia. That almost one-fourth of the Blackfriars’s year-round calendar features productions without directors and designers (the Actors’ Renaissance Season) further seems to diminish the director’s stature at the ASC.
But the actors here will tell you how important Warren has been for them in gleaning from their lines not only their characters’ behavior but also the subtlest shadings of their characters’ personalities. These productions may be text-centric, but it is Warren who so astutely grasps the nuances in these texts and allows their own relevant concepts to guide the production.
In the case of The Winter’s Tale, rather than try to apply logic to the play’s strange, sudden-wrought turns, Warren and his company put their full faith in Shakespeare’s method. Thus trusting the Bard we realize Leontes’ plunge into jealousy is not so abrupt. In Eugene Douglas’s portrayal of the Sicilian king, we can already see a streak of petulance (inherited by his son, Mamillius, by the way) inherent in the lines. Instead of greeting Hermione’s news that she has won the stay of old friend Polixenes with a “you do well, lady,” his immediate reply is “At my request he would not.” Then he dangles his insecurities before her as he says she has “never spok’st to better purpose…but once” before, and then riddles her along until he clarifies that “but once” as when she agreed to marry him. All of this, comprising more than 20 lines, comes before his notorious “Too hot, too hot” shift into unquenched jealous rage.
It works, in and of itself: no slow motion, sound cues, or light effects. No overly flirtatious Hermione, and no winking Polixenes, either. We don’t need further reason for Leontes to suspect his wife and best friend; in his own context his “Too hot, too hot” is true though his reason be false, and that is merely humanity. Shakespeare here, and as the subsequent scenes transpire, skillfully draws a portrait of tyranny. It was there all the time in Leontes and, Shakespeare suggests (further demonstrating it in Polixenes and, to some degree, in Paulina) that it is there in all men and women. The conundrum of tyranny is that it is blind to its own tyranny, even though obvious to everyone else. While Leontes’ behavior makes no sense to Camillo or the other courtiers, no logic or hard evidence or even a god’s oracle can penetrate his delusion. Shakespeare in the first half of The Winter’s Tale is holding up a window to the true nature of dictatorship, even in a kingdom where the rule of law supposedly holds sway. Look at today’s headlines, here and everywhere: how much more relevant can any director’s superimposed concept be? Watching this production, my admiration for Shakespeare grew by leaps realizing that he, King James’s designated favorite playwright, wrote these scenes that could have so easily been taken as a reflection on that king.
Enhancing Leontes’ effective portrayal of this theme, ironically, is in the hands of the actress playing Hermione. Stephanie Holladay Earl unlocks inestimable treasures in her portrayal of the Sicilian queen. Courtiers and audiences alike cannot help adoring this woman, her natural charm, her stunning beauty, her keen wit, her intelligent bearing, her smile. Even in the trial scene, bloodied and bedraggled, Earl’s Hermione holds forth with true courage and a pride that stands up to the pompous, cloak-whipping manners of Leontes, who relies on the volume of his truth to overcome the obvious of the real truth. Only the death of his son can shake his resolve, and once shaken, he finally and fully melts when he sees his celestial Hermione, loved of all the world, crumble to earth.
Because Douglas’s Leontes is so human, because Earl’s Hermione is so angelic, Paulina’s roar that the queen is dead plays out as the deepest of Shakespearean tragedy. Bridget Rue’s Paulina out-woa’d Lear in the effect she left on not just the king and courtiers but the audience, too. This could very well have ended the play and left us emotionally spent (when, in fact, we haven’t yet reached the intermission), but there is worse to come: Antigonus must abandon the baby girl, Perdita, on a wild plain, and then he is eaten by a bear even as his shipmates drown in a wreck. And boom! suddenly, one line later, the old Shepherd (Ronald Peet) is doing a stand-up comic’s routine on how much better life would be if boys would sleep continuously from age 10 to 23 instead of causing everyone else so much trouble.
Rebirth is at hand: that tragic play called The Winter’s Tale is done and the comic piece known as The Winter’s Tale has begun, even though the bear is still at his dinner. Warren and his cast smooth nothing in these transitions but trust that Shakespeare had reason to not only juxtapose his comedy with his tragedy but intermingle them: Rue’s Paulina draws laughs when she cows Leontes’ courtiers during his jealous rage in Act 2, and Polixenes’ sentence of torture and death on the old Shepherd and Perdita, as delivered by Patrick Earl as the Bohemian king, is a true stroke of terror come amid the festivities of Act 4. Warren has grasped all the minutest tricks Shakespeare uses to wring out every ounce of emotional response a thinking human can emote during two hours’ traffic on the stage: in this Winter’s Tale you literally cry, then laugh, then cry, then laugh, then finally cry and laugh together when Hermione’s statue comes to life.
Aside from his close scrutiny of the text, Warren makes some production choices that pay off well, too. As this was ASC’s 11-member tour troupe (ending its travels with a two-month residency at the Blackfriars), it has no child actor to play Mamillius. Instead, Denice Mahler, who also plays Perdita, is cast as the prince. Aside from providing the genetic resemblance to his sister, this Mamillius knows exactly how to react and respond to Leontes’ first and vitally important speech of jealous rage. By extension this helps guide the audience in appreciating the full measure of the king’s cementing delusion, something lost when a cute kid is merely reciting lines. Playing Autolycus is another ASC vet, Jake Mahler, a talented musician experienced in impishly interacting with the close-in Blackfriars audience. He is ideally suited to make this unabashed rogue the charmingly comic character Shakespeare intends him to be. Finally, it is not ASC (or Shakespeare, for that matter) without the interposition of live, contemporary music into the proceedings, so we get a rendering of the Dirty Dancing finale danced by the entire cast during the sheepshearing feast to “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.”
Life, over time, is full of joyful tidings and tragic turns, laughter and tears, hopes and despairs, births, deaths, and rebirths. Shakespeare’s audacity is jamming it all into one play, a tragedy and comedy called The Winter’s Tale. Warren and the ASC touring troupe’s accomplishment is trusting that Shakespeare’s Tale is true life and letting it work on us.