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A CurtainUp Review Berkshire Review
The Winter's Tale
By Elyse Sommer
The story that starts cheerfully enough with King Leontes and his Queen Hermione entertaining his friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia. Then Leontes "drinks the spider" and his darker side surfaces and he becomes convinced that she has exceeded her diplomatic duties and committed adultery. The emotional climate of the royal household quickly turns as chilly as the winter weather. Even the Oracle of Delphi's declaration that the Queen has been unjustly imprisoned and put on trial fails to assuage Leontes' rage. Not until the Queen and his son are dead, and the baby daughter he refused to accept as his own has been banished does grief and regret set in. The rest of the play spans sixteen years of regal penance, takes us to Bohemia and the exiled daughter and culminates in the miraculously happy ending for the girl and the young prince of Bohemia as well as Leontes since Hermione metamorphoses from statue to forgiving wife.
Since this is the third production of the play reviewed at CurtainUp readers can fill in the above plot-in-a-nutshell by checking the links at the end of this review. The first, part of Shakespeare & Company's "bare bones" series, with nine actors adeptly mastering all the parts was probably, for all its simplicity, the most successful. The second, performed in New York's Central Park, while short of perfection, left Les Gutman wondering "Why is this great play not more frequently performed?" As if to answer his question, Williamstown Theatre Festival has now enlisted one of its most creative visiting directors, Darko Tresnjak, to bring a full-featured new version to its main stage. The result is a visually stunning rendition of the play, though like the Shakespeare in Central Park version, a mixed bag in terms of performances that capture the shift in moods and time.
While Mr. Tresnjak adheres to Shakespeare's story line, he has invested the play with his very distinct and highly visual approach to directing. He fluidly moves the large cast (more than three dozen actors) from scene to scene and mood to mood. The staging achieves a grandeur that belies its basic simplicity. David P. Gordon's raised platform, which is bare except for a sprinkling of snow at the beginning and a dusting of leaves during the Bohemian scenes, serves as the main playing area. But while the stage is essentially bare, there is one ever-present prop, a giant scrim clock and moon at the rear of the stage. It is a practical and dynamic means for showing the flow of people and events and to symbolize Time which is so vital an element that it emerges through the character of a one-man chorus (here personified by the graceful Stacey Yen).
The cast includes an interesting mix of seasoned performers, though not all with backgrounds as Shakespeareans. John Bedford Lloyd, whose work I've admired in more contemporary works (e.g. The Rainmaker at WTF and on Broadway, a Good Will, Off-Broadway), proves himself a vocally strongy Leontes, though like many a jealousy maddened Leontes before him, his transformation lacks the subtlety to move us as deeply as it should. Kate Burton, last WTF season's lead in Hedda Gabler (slated for a Fall 2001 Broadway Run) is a breathtakingly lovely Hermione who shows commendable restraint in her impassioned self-defense during her trial. Reg E. Cathey, is fine if not fiery as Polixenes, the guiltless third party to the marital tragedy. Kristin Nelson is outstanding as Lady Pauline, Leontes' conscience. The ladies definitely have the edge among the lead characters.
But while the crux of the play is Leontes' descent into and from his self-destructive wintry period, much pleasure comes from some of the minor players. In Sicilia there's the excellent Dylan Baker as Camillo the Sicilian Lord who not only helps Polixenes escape from his vengeful host to his own kingdom, but joins him; also Tom Bloom as Antigonus, the Lord who carries Hermione's infant into exile. My only complaint about Bloom, whose voice anyone who has been to a few of his performances could recognize blindfolded, is that he is on stage too briefly. Born in Sicilia but raised by a Bohemian shepherd, we have Laura Benanti, one of Broadway's rising young musical stars, in her first non-singing role, as King Leontes' lost daughter Perdita. Too bad, WTF audiences who are not familiar with her work don't get a sample of her soprano voice. There is singing, but the singer is Stephen DeRosa as the endearing scoundrel, Autolycus. He doesn't come on stage until after the intermission, but once there, he draws a round of applause for each of his funny turns. His resonant voice adds to the impact of his Shakespearean debut (Actually, the first time the actor came to CurtainUp's attention was in the multiple authored adaptations of Shakespeare's sonnets, Love's Fire). While DeRosa lifts the play above the stretches when you wish you could fast forward the hands of that clock, even he does not save the Shepherds' celebration from being too self-consciously merry and drawn out.
Costume designer Linda Cho and lighting designer Rui Rita, who like David P. Gordon worked with Mr. Trejnak on his colorful production of The Skin of Our Teeth, buffer the scenic design. The collaborative artistry of this team is at its most spectacular during the Queen's arraignment before a red-robed, masked tribunal and during her final descent from her pedestal.
The Winter's Tale is a play that gives summer theater the bite of all seasons. With its blend of tragedy, comedy and fantasy it' a good introduction to Shakespeare for the whole family (provided your pre-teens and teens have the required attention span).
The Winter's Tale in Central Park, summer 2000
The Winter's Tale Shakespeare & Company
Shakespeare's Little Instruction Book -- our Shakespeare Quote page with links to all Shakespeare plays reviewed.
Other Trejnak directed plays:
The Skin Of Our Teeth
Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Other Plays Mentioned: