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4-D Vision as 2-D Theater

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Eric MintonEric Minton   May 29, 2013  
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Photos: T. Charles Erickson

  • The Winter's Tale
  • by William Shakespeare
  • Shakespeare Theatre Company
  • May 9 - June 23, 2013
Acting 3
Costumes 4
Sets 2
Directing 2
Overall 2

Mopsa fell over. Or Dorca, I don't remember which. It was a prop, what looked like a cardboard cutout photo of a sheep, and during the playing of the sheep-shearing feast it was accidently knocked down. Unfortunately, that serves as an apt representation for this presentation of William Shakespeare's Winter's Tale, a mostly forgettable production, thinly constructed with two-dimensional performances. It ultimately falls flat.

Director Rebecca Taichman does have honorable intentions with her vision of a play that serves as a theatrical illusion of life, and she attempts to channel not just Shakespeare's muse but his business acumen, too. The cast has only nine players and three musicians, echoing the fact that Shakespeare's company had nine shareholders and three musicians. However, historical documents indicate the company had "other associates," probably hired actors as well as the apprentice boys needed to play, for example, Mamillius and Perdita and perhaps Hermione in The Winter's Tale.

Taichman also makes the notable choice of doubling Leontes and Autolycus (Mark Harelik playing both parts) upon the idea that the two characters are essentially polar opposites. "Whereas Leontes is possessed by paranoid delusions and searches for the truth, Autolycus possesses a frank view of the world's realities and is a master of lies," writes Drew Lichtenberg, Shakespeare Theatre Company literary associate, in his program notes. He goes on to write, "As far as I know, no major company has ever attempted to double the two roles with one actor, making this production unique, perhaps with the exception of Shakespeare's own." As for Shakespeare's company, two of the nine King's Men shareholders were Richard Burbage, who played leads like Leontes, and Robert Armin, who played Autolycus-like roles dating back to As You Like It. Furthermore, given that Autolycus and Leontes have back-to-back exit/entrances in four successive scenes at the end of the play, I can understand why no company would attempt to double these two roles. STC's production accomplishes that troubling juxtaposition of scenes by transforming their construction and having Harelik put on an eyepatch when he plays Autolycus and taking it off to resume playing Leontes.

Other well-intentioned choices fall short of their intended insights. Shakespeare provided two gossips scenes: at the play's opening when the conversation between two gentlemen establish the background of Sicilia's King Leontes and his best friend, Bohemia's King Polixenes (Sean Arbuckle), and Act Five, Scene Two, in which three gentlemen tattle to Autolycus about the great reveal of Perdita as Leontes' long-lost daughter and the reunion of the friends. Taichman turns both of these into a Chorus split in nine, the cast milling about speaking lines in turn. While the chorus device accomplishes moving the story along, we lose the gossiping nature of Sicilia that provides a subtext to Leontes' paranoid slide into deadly jealousy (and the second of the two gossip scenes can play hilariously as written—comedy lost when it's just actors genially reciting a few chosen lines to the audience). Ironically, the actors occupy chairs at the back of the set when they are not in scenes, a visual clue of the walls-have-ears atmosphere of Sicilia.

Sicilia itself is a well-appointed mansion in Christine Jones's set design, and the characters wear what Taichman described as "contemporary mythic" clothes designed by David Zinn (with the formal wear of the two kings and the gorgeous gowns worn by Hannah Yelland as Hermione, Oscar nominees should be lining up outside Zinn's door). Bohemia is represented by a large photograph of a hilly meadow set on the back of the stage, giant wood butterflies at the end of long poles that the actors carry on stage, and a herd of cutout sheep. I often complain about STC's tendency to overproduce Shakespeare, but this time the company turns the exotic Bohemia of Shakespeare's words into something kind of chintzy (better to use his method of no props or scenery at all). With Mopsa and Dorca now part of that herd instead of shepherdesses vying for the Clown's attention, the sheep-shearing feast has all the festiveness of a neighborhood barbecue with rain in the forecast.

Taichman aims for a clear demarcation between tragedy in the play's first half and comedy in the play's second half, crowned by the tragicomical wonder of the final scene. Shakespeare, however, shook it all up, inserting humorous scenes into the overall horror of the Sicilian segment and adding danger to the overall comedy of the Bohemian scenes. Instead of a thrilling roller coaster effect, this production gives us a static soap opera followed by a not-quite-as-static sitcom.

Then it turns magical as Taichman stages a heart-thumping statue-awakening scene. The curtains open on a studio, with lamps, bells, and bell clappers hanging down from the ceiling. All nine members of the cast are present, including the Old Shepherd and his son (a worthy addition to this scene, as they are meeting their adopted daughter/sister's mother for the first time), and the three musicians sit at the back of the stage, awaiting the command from Paulina (Nancy Robinette) to play. At the center on a platform is Yelland as Hermione, draped in a shimmering gold gown and arms spread in suspended grace. The reunion with her daughter is powerful. As Paulina says "Turn, good lady, our Perdita is found," Hermione's 16-year, nightmare-haunted wait melts into tears and she blesses Perdita with words and the gift of patient resolve. With Leontes, however, Yelland's Hermione is not quite ready to forgive—accept him and his apology, yes, but Yelland still maintains a bristling aspect when her husband reaches out to her for a loving embrace. Her approach to old friend Polixenes is also one of wariness—she has no idea what prompted Leontes' jealousy in the first place, whether it was her behavior or something Polixenes did or said. Though the three end in a tableux that mirrors their embrace at the play's start, both Hermione and Polixenes move into it cautiously.

That embrace in the opening scene holds such promise for a Winter's Tale presented with deep understanding on its own terms rather than serving an allegorical concept. Leontes, Polixenes, and Hermione have all been (and continue) drinking way too much. Polixenes and Hermione don't do anything inappropriate, though they are clearly affectionate, but it is an affection they share with Leontes. However, all this affection, along with the drink, lubricates Leontes' slide into jealousy, spurred along by Hermione's seeming lapse in recalling the "once before I spoke to th'purpose" (i.e., when she accepted his marriage proposal). What Hermione clearly intends as quibbling turns Leontes to pouting, and the bolt into outright jealousy comes off effectively.

Harelik, with the granite jaw and chiseled nose of a Roman statue, wears Leontes' emotions on his sleeves more bedazzling than 20 karat diamond cufflinks. Yet, only one facet shimmers at one time: He's all love, then he's consumed with jealousy, then all-out angry, then lost in distraction, then wracked in grief, then suffering a paralyzing depression, then overcome in repentance so much so that his pressing for forgiveness at the end comes off as pathetic. Polixenes by contrast is such a gentle soul in Sicilia that his viciousness toward Perdita and the Old Shepherd comes out of nowhere—even his agitation about his son hanging out with a shepherd's daughter seems a bit extreme for the Polixenes we'd seen 16 years before, though I realize that 16 years can change someone in a hurry. Shakespeare, though, gives us a key clue about these two men when Polixenes describes himself and Leontes as "twinned lambs" in their youth, and they continue such in their ultimate behaviors: both are doting husbands/fathers with interweaving streaks of paranoia and tyranny that erupt on the slimmest of reasons and in the swiftest of time. In the opening scene of this production, Harelik's Leontes and Arbuckle's Polixenes play as opposite temperaments rather than kindred spirits.

Another of Taichman's interpolations in Shakespeare's script is having Hermione move across the stage as her spirit, giving direction to Antigonus carrying the babe to a wilderness. It's a nice touch, if for no other reason than to give us more Yelland as Hermione. Carefree and loving from the start, she takes many lines before she understands that Leontes is truly jealous and calling her a strumpet for real. Yelland plays the transition as a woman of courage, terribly hurt but remembering to bear herself as the emperor of Russia's daughter even in the shock of Leontes' rant. During her trial she remains stalwart despite obvious physical weakness. In Yelland's performance, we sense that this smart, stronger-than-marble woman digests the oracle, Leontes' maniacal laughter after he reads it aloud and calls it "mere falsehood," and the sudden news of their son's death in the flash of a moment before fainting and, upon reviving off stage, telling Paulina, "I'm going to wait out my daughter's return and let that (expletive) husband of mine languish all the while"—and languish a bit more after, too.

Harelik unleashes his inner imp in playing Autolycus as a carnival barker in an acid trip, wearing metallic blue and black striped suit coat and pants with top hat and red cape. Harelik finds a foundation for this part in Autolycus's autobiography as a servant of Prince Florizel who "in my time wore three-pile, but now I am out of service." There's a bit of self-loathing in this Autolycus, and to counter that, he turns rogue, and a most effective one. While the play suffers many cuts in this production, it also enjoys an embellishment when Harelik is allowed improvisational reign in describing the ballads that Autolycus sells at the feast. His bizarre, ever-escalating rant of the queen and her tiny chickens is this particular evening's heightened moment of comedy.

Ted van Griethuysen doubles as Antigonus and the Old Shepherd. The three-piece-suited, stiff-demeanored lord exits pursued by a bear and comes right back on stage speaking the next line as a loose-limbed country fellow in green workman's coat. This quick transition van Griethuysen skillfully accomplishes, so maybe Burbage could have likewise pulled off four such back-to-back transitions. Van Griethuysen's Old Shepherd is not a silly old man but a caring father to his foundling daughter and his foundering son. In another more traditional doubling, Heather Wood plays both Mamillius the young son and Perdita the grown daughter, but she also plays Time, speaking the passage-of-16-years monologue as she literally disrobes and changes from little boy's PJs into young woman's summer dress.

Shakespeare achieved many a wonderful theatrical moment over his career, but none as magical as the last scene of A Winter's Tale. How a statue comes to life serving as a metaphor for theater is a notion worthy of inspiring Taichman's direction. But she goes too far with the metaphor as her production becomes too much theater and too little life—especially with Mopsa and Dorca.

This review also appears on Shakespeareances.com.

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