"Grim and Bear It"
Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, once only infrequently performed but now a fairly regular entry on the classical revival calendar, is back again. This past November, the Public Theater’s Mobile Theater Unit gave it a memorably simplified rendering. Currently, it’s getting a fuller, longer (nearly three hours), more visually sumptuous, but far less stimulating staging by Theatre for a New Audience, under Arin Arbus’s direction, at Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center.
In my review of the Public’s version, I noted:
While the play introduces several thoughtful themes, its multiple illogicalities, exaggerations, and far-fetched developments require a particular lightness of touch; it has to maintain an essential level of believability while also providing room for broad comedy and moving sentiment. All this is accomplished far more successfully in this production than many more elaborate, star-studded ones.
The leading actors in TFANA’s production are better known than those who played their roles at the Public but, while the show is certainly more elaborate, it’s by no means “star-studded.” Moreover, it comes nowhere near capturing the play’s schizophrenic, tragicomic personality.
|Anatol Yusuf, Kelley Curran. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
The Winter’s Tale, sometimes called a “romance,” is a tragicomedy, in the vein of Cymbeline, Pericles, and The Tempest, each of which is filled with fanciful, nonrealistic, practically fairy-tale conceits. It’s the kind of play you accept for values other than its rationality.
|Kelley Curran, Dion Mucciacito. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Elizabethan playwright John Fletcher defined tragicomedy in his “To the Reader” address for The Faithful Shepherd (1608-09), briefly summarized by Karl J. Holzknecht and Norman E. McLure:
A tragicomedy is a romantic drama involving serious emotions, but ending happily, and presenting a seemingly tragic situation which is satisfactorily resolved before it proceeds logically to Nemesis: The end men looked for cometh not,/And a path there is where no man thought.
|Anatol Yusuf, Kelley Curran, Dion Mucciacito. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Such, indeed, is the essence of The Winter’s Tale, although, as Arbus’s uninspired direction does everything to emphasize, Act One is drearily tragic and Act Two, which seems like a different play, dully farcical, with the two genres joining, more or less, only in the final scene.
|Michael Rogers, Anatol Yusuf. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Convinced by their friendly tête-à-tête that Hermione and Polixenes are lovers, that the child in her womb is Polixenes’, and suspecting that even his young son, Mamillius (Eli Rayman), is not his, Leontes imprisons Hermione and asks the courtier Camillo (Michael Rogers) to poison Polixenes.
|Liz Wisan. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Amazed by his lord’s rash behavior, Camillo transfers his allegiance to Polixenes, and flees with him to Bohemia. When Hermione and Leontes’ baby girl is born in prison, Leontes denies it’s his and orders it abandoned, ignoring the fiery pleas of the outspoken lady-in-waiting Paulina (Mahira Kakkar).
|Anatol Yusuf, Eli Rayman. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Paulina's husband, the courtier Antigonus (Oberon K.A. Adjepong), deposits the baby on the seacoast of Bohemia, where he's soon gobbled by a hungry bear. That happens, it should be noted, after a mildly humorous mimed fight scene (staged by J. Allen Suddeth) during which both the bear and his Antigonus, er, antagonist, engage in mixed martial arts. On my honor.
|Oberon K.A. Adjepong. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Meanwhile, the Delphic oracle declares Hermione innocent; Mamillius, affected by his mother’s treatment, dies; Hermione herself is believed to have died; and the clownish Old Shepherd (John Keating) and his doofus son (Ed Malone) find the infant (and its accompanying fortune) and agree to raise it.
|John Keating, Ed Malone. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Old man Time (Robert Langdon Lloyd) informs us that 16 years have passed. We’re now in the bucolic world of Bohemia where the baby has grown into the pretty Perdita (Nicole Rodenburg), romantically involved with Polixenes’ princely son, Florizel (Eddie Ray Jackson).
|Robert Langdon Lloyd. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Their canoodling is spied on at a sheep-shearing festival (which includes dancing choreographed by Austin McCormick) by the disguised king and Camillo. Hearing his son’s intention to wed Perdita, Polixenes angrily reveals himself and expresses his displeasure, which prompts Camillo to advise the couple to seek Leontes’ protection in Sicilia.
|Eddie Ray Jackson, Nicole Rodenburg. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Also taking up much time is Autolycus (Arnie Burton), a comic grifter, depicted here as an inveterate pickpocket.
|Liz Wisan, Arnie Burton, Maechi Aharanwa. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
|Company of The Winter's Tale. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
With all the principals gathered for the unveiling, it’s only a matter of time before words of love, forgiveness, reconciliation, and repentance bring things to a foregone conclusion.
|Maechi Aharanwa, Mahira Kakkar. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Riccardo Hernandez has provided a spare, nearly furniture-less, unadorned thrust stage for what, in Act One, shows a white floor, white runways through the audience, soaring white walls, and a huge upstage archway, within which is an inner stage for things like the flying in of painted curtains or the placement of Hermione on her pedestal.
|The company of The Winter's Tale. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
In Act Two, Marcus Doshi’s lighting washes the walls in verdant colors and, in contrast to the falling snow of the early scenes, green leaves flutter down (and, unfortunately, continue to do so throughout) to cover the stage. The snow, in particular, being artificial, has a disconcerting way of clinging to the clothing of actors who lie or sit in it. Be it noted that the green leaves of Bohemia are still there when we’ve moved back to Sicilia. And, by the way, do we really need to have headset-wearing stagehands doing shifts?
|Mahira Kakkar. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Emily Rebholz’s modern-dress costumes, whose military and priestly examples suggest Russian influences, aren’t much different than those seen in countless other such productions. Modern dress Shakespeare, in fact, can be kind of boring. The spiffy suits worn late in the play by the Old Shepherd and his son get a laugh but mainly because of Ed Malone’s uniquely spindly, beanpole anatomy, which can make almost anything look funny.
|Anatol Yusuf. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Malone and Keating’s shepherds, in fact, are the single most memorable feature of this otherwise ordinary revival; regulars at the Irish Rep, where they skillfully deploy their accent talents, they sound here as if they could as easily be from Ireland as Lancashire; whatever they are, they give their foolish characters just the right touch of Shakespearean drollery.
Shakespeare’s clowns can be dreadfully tiresome without authentically comic actors playing them. That’s why, if anything can be cut without harming a play’s integrity, they should be the scissors’ first target. While the shepherds are necessary here, Autolycus can be done without (or greatly trimmed); eliminating him entirely was one reason the Public’s version succeeded. Even the versatile comic actor Arnie Burton struggles to make him laughable, including lots of byplay with someone in the first row (groan). The audience appeared to enjoy him but, for me, his funny things happened on his way to the play, not after he got there.
None of the serious acting is notably distinctive. Too much of the dialogue—much of it accompanied by composer Justin Ellington’s music or sound designer Broken Chord’s ominous thrumming—either strives for conversational naturalness or, like Kakkar’s one-note Paulina, delivers un-nuanced emotional rhetoric. The actors speak passionately but too often it comes from the head and not the heart, as when Yusuf (nearly a head shorter than his Hermione, by the way) fails to make Leontes’ implausible jealousy plausible.
Arbus has observed that “At this moment, when so many dark forces are being unleashed, this play about miraculous transformation feels urgent.” That may be so but the only urgency I felt while watching it was of another sort.
Perhaps a revival of The Winter’s Tale is just what we need to say farewell to a season that’s been taking what seems like 16 years to depart, and hello to another that’s being anxiously awaited. Now that’s a transformation devoutly to be wished.
|Kelley Curran, Anatol Yusuf, Nicole Rodenburg. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Theatre for a New Audience/Polonsky Shakespeare Center
Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY
Through April 15