Theater Review: An Entertaining “Winter’s Tale” — Under the Summer Stars

The Winter’s Tale‘s odd structure and hybrid genre is a challenge to modern directors and audiences alike.

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare. Directed by Sarah Gazdowicz. Staged by Maiden Phoenix Theatre Company at the Nathan Tufts Park, Somerville, MA., through August 30.

Cassandra Meyer and Juliet Bowler

Cassandra Meyer (Hermione) and Juliet Bowler (Leontes) in the Maiden Phoenix production of “The Winter’s Tale.” Photo: Courtesy of the company.

By Ian Thal

Until relatively recently, The Winter’s Tale has been one of the lesser known works in the Shakespeare canon. Its neglect probably owes much to its status as one of the “problem plays” — the problem being one of taxonomy because it fits neither the genre of comedy or tragedy. Neither can the script claim to represent history; the action seems to take place in some romantic dream of Europe’s mythical pre-Christian past. However, there’s been a recent resurgence of interest in The Winter’s Tale. The Act III stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear” has become somewhat of a camp catchphrase amongst Shakespeareans. More importantly, it’s being performed with greater frequency: besides the all-female cast Maiden Phoenix production, currently being staged in Nathan Tufts Park in Somerville’s Powder House Square, Actors’ Shakespeare Project has already announced a production that will open in December.

Shakespeare’s play is believed to be one of his later ones — the historical record places its premiere in 1611 at the Globe, and later that year in King James’ court. The play must have pleased James because it was performed two years later as part of the festivities that proceeded his daughter Princess Elizabeth’s marriage to Frederick V, Elector Palatine. The Winter’s Tale would be performed at court several more times during James’ reign.

The play’s odd structure and hybrid genre is a challenge to modern directors and audiences alike — which may explain both why the play has not been very popular and why as of late directors have been intrigued by it. It’s plot was taken almost entirely from Robert Greene’s pastoral romance, Pandosto. The first three acts of The Winter’s Tale is tragedy in the classical mode: Leontes (Juliet Bowler), the King of Sicilia, is so consumed by paranoid jealousy that he convinces himself that the friendship between his Queen Hermione (Cassandra Meyer) and his sworn-brother since childhood Polixenes (Kamela Dolinova), King of Bohemia, has made him a cuckold. So for Leontes, the child that Hermione carries is a bastard.

Despite protests from his court, Hermione’s pleas of innocence, and even declarations from Apollo’s oracle, Leontes is unshaken and orders an assassination of his friend (the courtier tasked with the killing, Camilo, played by Mara Elsa Palma, defects to Bohemia), imprisons and prosecutes his wife, orders his newborn daughter to be left to die in the wilderness, and blasphemes against the god who challenges his delusion. Only after his beloved son Mamillius (Caroline Rose Markham) dies of grief and Hermione is also taken by despair does Leontes realize he has destroyed all that he loved. He finally sees himself as his court does — as a cruel tyrant. (It is suggested by some that Leontes’s persecution of Hermione is an allegory for Henry VIII’s persecution of his wife Anne Boleyn — an issue Shakespeare avoided addressing in his 1613 collaboration with John Fletcher, Henry VIII.)

The final two acts of The Winter’s Tale is a rustic comedy mixed with a courtly romance. Sixteen years have passed and an old shepherd (April Singley) who found the infant abandoned on the shores of Bohemia has named her Perdita (Leilani Ricardo) and raised her as his own. Polixenes’ son, Florizel (Markham, again), who disguises himself as a merchant in order to mingle with the peasants, falls in love with the shepherd’s daughter. After the King of Bohemia forbids his son from marrying Perdita, due to her apparent low-birth, the young lovers flee to Sicilia. The now penitent Leontes grants the lovers sanctuary, and with the help of a number of courtiers and commoners, Perdita’s true parentage is revealed, the couple’s pairing is blessed, and past misdeeds are forgiven.

Sarah Gazdowicz bridges the shift in genre by shifting the playing space during the intermission. The tragedy is staged at the peak of Nathan Tufts Park by the historic colonial-era Powder House that gives the neighboring square its name. The comedy transpires by the cyclopean-style masonry that separates the upper and lower parts of the park. The stone Powder House is a wonderful backdrop, but the steeply sloping foot path and the large stones that challenge the leg muscles of kids and adults make for a more inspired setting. Gazdowicz’s tableau work is far more intriguing in the latter two acts. Her actors are sometimes half-hidden in crevasses, perched on irregular ledges, or have to adapt their stance to the incline — particularly during the festivities that are part of the sheep sheering ceremony.

Kiki Samko’s movement choreography also seems more lively once the fourth act begins: the ensemble business that portrays the infamous bear as it mauls Antigonus (Singley) is interesting, but the group attack lacks any ursine qualities. Before the mask is revealed it is hard to tell just what this group stalk is supposed to represent (unless one already knows the play): A pack of wolves? A pride of lions? A band of brigands? An eldritch abomination? The formal courtly dance that opens Act I is relatively stiff; it is perfunctory compared to either the rustic folk dancing of Act IV or the gamboling that closes the play. As with Gazdowicz, the steep incline and rocky landscape sets up obstacles that get Samko’s creative juices flowing.

Juliet Bowler is a powerful Leontes. Her vocal precision heightens the paranoia of the King in his madness; his carefully constructed walls of words are impregnable to any voice of reason. But she also does a fine job of portraying Leontes’ grief when he finally realizes what he has done, as well as well as his inability to forgive himself, even in the end, when others have forgiven at least some of his sins. Cassandra Meyer’s Hermione is of regal bearing, communicating the distress of a wife and mother who has been slandered, even though as Queen she must maintain the controlled dignity demanded by her role. Due to the tragedy that takes up three acts, this Winter’s Tale is Bowler and Meyer’s show before the intermission cues the passage of sixteen years.

On the Rocks: Juliet Bowler, Cassandra Meyer, Leilani Ricardo, and Gail Shalan in the Maiden Phoenix production of "The Winter's Tale." Photo: Courtesy of the company.

On the Rocks: Juliet Bowler, Cassandra Meyer, Leilani Ricardo, and Gail Shalan in the Maiden Phoenix production of “The Winter’s Tale.” Photo: Courtesy of the company.

For the final two acts, the play becomes more of an ensemble production. April Singley’s shepherd is a stylized clown: the figure’s thick rural accent, hunched back, and high stepping has all the animation of a cartoon character. Sarah Mass is charismatic as Autolycus, an itinerant singer of bawdy songs, peddler, and rogue with a heart of gold. He is as comfortable dealing with rustics as he is with royalty. When she sings, Mass gives Autolycus a glam-rock stage persona that recalls David Bowie — the shepherd women understandably fawn over him. Meyer, as the shepherd’s son (identified as “Clown” in Shakespeare’s text — the word originated as a slur that city-folk hurled at rural-folk) joins with fellow Bohemian rustics Dorcas (Allison Gilman) and Mopsa (Gail Shalan) for some amusing antics. Markham and Ricardo are an appealing pair of lovers.

In a production where a single-gendered cast plays characters of both genders, costume designers must create the visual shorthand that helps the audience to quickly identify the sex of the characters. For the courtiers of Sicilia, designer Norma Heller has created waist-coats and gowns of brightly colored gauze that emphasize theatrical artifice: the cage crinolines under the petticoats; the pillow that represents Queen Hermione’s pregnancy; the actors’ bodies in spandex tights. (The costume rack is usually kept in the viewer’s peripheral vision.) Autolycus’ distinctive costume, in which the motley ribbons mentioned in the text are clearly made from scraps left over from the costumes worn by Sicilia’s courtiers, fancifully marks its wearer as a Harlequin flitting between worlds. It also gracefully demonstrates how designers can be creative on a shoe-string budget.

The Winter’s Tale is a chimerical piece in the Shakespeare canon: a classical tragedy up front, a rustic comedy in the middle, and a courtly romance with a supernatural kick for a tail. For those who demand consistency, the play’s genre transformations may be jarring. However, for the less easily dissuaded, this poetic drama has much to recommend it — as does this production. Audience members should not be intimidated that August rains and heat waves have cancelled several performances in the run — weather patterns seem to be settling down, so there is no excuse to miss this entertaining evening with the Bard under a canopy of stars and leaves.

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Maiden Phoenix Theatre Company’s mission statement is that it is “committed to giving opportunities to female theater artists, onstage and off, by having at least 51% female involvement in all aspects. We focus on plays that tell women’s stories: past present and future, in the hopes of breaking down stereotypes[….]” Anyone who has glanced at StageSource’s report A Spotlight on Gender Parity in The New England Theater Community is aware of an on-going debate about the employment opportunities for female theater artists — especially at the larger companies. Gender disparity amongst actors in New England is not as severe as the disproportion found in  director, playwright, and some production design positions.(StageSource also reports that there are positions where women greatly outnumber men, notably in stage management, dramaturgy, and costume and prop design.) Followers of the Bard are well aware that Shakespeare rarely provided as many female roles in his plays as he did in The Winter’s Tale (though they were played by boys in his era). The upshot is that there are frequently fewer opportunities for women to play Shakespearean characters, except when the director opts to cast them in “pants-roles” as in this production, or to “gender-flip” characters as with others. Wherever one stands on how a Shakespeare play is interpreted for the stage, an economic issue is involved: the opportunity for artists, whatever their gender, to work and build up their résumés.

Ian Thal is a playwright, performer and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled From The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.

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