For the People's Light and Theater Company, The Winter's Tale does not begin onstage but literally in winter. Outside, half an hour before the show starts, the audience is encouraged to mingle underneath strings of lanterns, sipping at hot cider and warming themselves at giant wood-fire stoves, as the company juggles, sings, and dances – and, on this occasion at least, snow enthusiastically falls from the heavens. The ambitious production consists not only of the play, but of an entire festival, incorporating Shakespeare's words into a pageant celebrating the turn of the seasons and the promised arrival of spring from the depths of winter.
It's an elaborate yet intriguing conceit: a flyer elaborates the company’s role as a wandering troupe of performers dedicated to strengthening the bonds of community through the arts and in the spirit of ancient pagan festivals. Director Guy Hollands takes his inspiration from the Dance of the Satyrs at the sheep-shearing festival in Act IV, a sequence that is frequently cut from productions. His research into the subject led him to a wealth of information about folk traditions and rituals, and the decision to incorporate the play itself into a seasonal ceremony. (In what is either a brilliant marketing decision or an extremely happy coincidence, they even manage to open on Groundhog's Day, Pennsylvania's very own heralding of spring.) Hollands presents an almost seamless transition between new and old material: the revelry outside concludes with the presentation of an effigy of the Winter Witch, who is carried inside by a procession chanting “Burn the witch!” and stored underneath the stage, after which the ensemble performs another song before segueing into the beginning of the play (here, starting at 1.2).
The music, composed and directed by Michael John McCarthy, is an integral component of the whole production. Members of the ensemble provide the accompaniment with a suitably folky combination of fiddle, guitar, accordion, and autoharp. The Dance of the Satyrs is represented by the Impossible Dance, a nicely complicated but thankfully not truly impossible Morris dance; Hollands’s inspiration is first featured outside in an epic rendition by the whole company, then reprised with only one side of dancers in its proper place in the play. Music and dance bookend the action of the play as well as the whole production, festivities and all. Yet despite the many elements added to the performance, Hollands never lets them overwhelm the text, here an elegant iteration that elides exposition and extraneous plot points. His steady hand melds the performance into a comprehensive whole, a nearly perfect balance of tragedy and comedy, of music, dance, and drama.
The immersive experience of this Winter's Tale begins almost immediately, with the outdoor festival design by James F. Pyne, Jr.: outside the main entrance, surrounded by the stoves and underneath the lanterns, is a weathered wooden structure acting as a stage for the entertainers, laid out like the grounds at a small country fair. Costume/Set Designer Philip Witcomb continues this association inside with a thrust stage constructed of the same gray wood, lined with battered red and white bunting and old-timey gazebo lights. Modern technology is disguised, as the speakers have been replaced by phonograph horns and the stage lights given retro limelight covers. Flanking the stage are two giant posters in the style of old woodcuts: on the left, a skeleton cavorts in a bleak landscape under In Mortem Brumalis, and on the right, a maiden is surrounded by greenery underneath Die Natalis Aestas; roughly, “In the death of winter to the birthday of summer”. Just in case the theme of the festival isn't yet clear, the set dressing features a literal progression of the seasons: Sicilia, soon-to-be site of brutality and cold-heartedness, is decked out like a winter hunting lodge with antlers, animal skulls, and an enormous bear's head and holly wreath; Bohemia, source of renewal and rebirth, changes out those fixtures for stuffed lambs and garlands of flowers.
Witcomb's costume design parallels these motifs – a band of players celebrating the seasons and their transformative power – almost exactly: at the pre-show festivities, some of the actors have donned their characters' costumes, but others are dressed specifically for that event, with many of the dancers donning jackets made of fluttering red and white ribbons. The troupe's baseline seems to be a slightly twisted circus aesthetic, featuring a lot of black and white stripes, tattoo sleeves, and Victorian silhouettes, but paired with wild teased hair and stylized face paint, including some designs clearly inspired by the Mexican Day of the Dead festival. In the play itself, wintery Sicilia requires the addition of heavy coats and furs; in springtime Bohemia, meanwhile, the dress is in fact more bohemian, with skirts and trousers rolled up and topped with a variety of outlandish accessories, including more flowers and animal masks for the sheep-shearing festival. There are a few missteps – Saige Hassler is particularly ill-served, sporting a mysteriously anachronistic pair of Chuck Taylor All-Stars when she plays Mamillius and swamped by an enormous green gown and flowered headdress when she plays Perdita – but overall the choices reflect the association with winter and spring, as well as a more general connection to the concept of dynamic transformation.
While the ensemble is excellent overall, their strengths definitely coincide with the moments when the play is most self-aware of its levels of performance. The tragedy of the first three acts certainly has its highlights – particularly Nancy McNulty's wry and forthright Hermione, and the many confrontations of Melanye Finister's fiery Paulina – but Christopher Patrick Mullen's heated, rapid-fire delivery as Leontes, the emotional lynchpin of the plot, takes a few scenes to achieve total coherence. In comparison, the last two acts of the play, which provided the inspiration for the production, feature the best melding of performance and concept. Peter DeLaurier delivers a good turn as Antigonus, but once he is pursued by a bear and reborn he delivers an excellent comedic turn as the shepherd who discovers Perdita. Playing her foster-brother, Jerry Richardson steals the show with slapstick, comic timing, and a finely-tuned sense for the hyperbolic. Pete Pryor serves as a bombastic ringmaster, MC, and chorus, which segues perfectly into his role as the rogue Autolycus. Meanwhile, though Saige Hassler is generally a diminutive Perdita, she comes alive in her dance numbers, finally matching the charisma she had as Mamillius preparing to recite his “sad tale” or as a musician rocking out on the autoharp during the intermission. The production sends in the clowns to play the clowns, mining the theater's own traditions for a metatheatrical flourish to the already skillful performances.
The production ends with the company retrieving the Winter Witch from beneath the stage and processing off to burn it in a (symbolic) bonfire. Sadly, despite the pageantry, performance, and imaginary immolation, the People's Light and Theater Company's production did not actually have the ability to summon spring: the snow kept on falling. Nevertheless, their exceptional interpretation of The Winter's Tale stands as a testament to the the creativity and passion that can liven even the dreariest winter months.