Theater Review: “The Winter’s Tale” — A Problem Play, Solved

The ASP’s superb production of The Winter’s Tale provides an unusually deft fusion of tragedy and comedy.

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare. Directed by Melia Bensussen. Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project at Willet Hall at United Parish, Brookline, MA, through January 3.

Allyn Burrows' Leontes and Mara Sidmore's Hermoine in the Actors' Shakespeare Project's staging of "The Winter's Tale." Photo: Stratton McCrady.

Allyn Burrows’ Leontes and Mara Sidmore’s Hermoine in the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s staging of “The Winter’s Tale.” Photo: Stratton McCrady.

By Ian Thal

The Winter’s Tale is one of the stranger entries in the Shakespearean canon – the text is often categorized as one of the “problem plays” because it does not fit comfortably into a single genre. The narrative’s tone shifts from dank tragedy to rustic comedy, and then moves onto courtly romance before reaching resolution in Elizabethan magic realism. Long neglected, the script has generated a lot of theatrical interest lately. Perhaps the explanation is that it is one of the Bard’s plays with a happy ending that audiences aren’t familiar with. On the artistic front, directors are intrigued by its tragicomic staging challenges. And then there is the charismatic appeal of one of the most memorable stage directions in Shakespeare: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” Without CGI, rustling up a convincing version of the animal can be a tall order. (This production opts to keep the clawed threat abstract, relying on thunder and lightning courtesy of sound designer Dave Remedies and lighting designer John Malinowski.)

Actors’ Shakespeare Project is not the first local company to stage The Winter’s Tale this year – in August, Maiden Phoenix presented a free all-female outdoor production that had its merits, but made its biggest impression in and beyond the Boston area because of Erin Butcher’s essay Why I Will Never Produce Another All-Female Outdoor Show Again in which she described unforeseen (and formidable) security problems. (Note: This January, Coolidge Corner Theater will be screening Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s production of The Winter’s Tale from the Garrick Theater in London. The staging stars Judi Dench and Branagh, who co-directed.)

Because it is not a particularly well known Shakespeare play, a brief recap is in order. The story opens in Sicilia where King Leontes (Allyn Burrows) is entertaining his friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia (Nigel Gore). Noticing the warm affections between his friend and his pregnant wife Hermione (Mara Sidmore), Leontes is overwhelmed by a delusion that he has been made a cuckold, and that the expected child is the product of adultery. He orders Camillo, a trusted lord of his court (Jesse Hinson), to assassinate Polixenes. Instead, the moral man warns the royal guest and they both escape to Bohemia. Leontes’ paranoia grows and his persecution of Hermione intensifies – he forces her to give birth in a prison cell, orders another lord, Antigonus (Steven Barkhimer), to abandon the infant to certain death on a foreign shore, and places Hermione on public trial. When Apollo’s oracle at Delphi proclaims the innocence of both Hermione and Polixenes and accuses Leontes of tyranny, the monarch blasphemes against the god. It is only when both his son and his wife die of grief that the king realizes that he as become a mad despot who no longer commands the respect of his court. But Shakespeare’s tragic vision is not the end of Leontes’ world – healing comedy follows.

The fourth act picks up sixteen years later in rural Bohemia. The royal infant, raised by an old shepherd (Allyn Burrows, again), has grown into a young woman named Perdita (Austyn Davis). She is being courted by by a young man, Florizel (Felix Teich), the son of Polixenes incognito. Unable to approve of such a marriage, Polixenes and Camilo disguise themselves to investigate what the young prince has been up. This action leads a reunion in which true identities are revealed, penance made, and transgressions forgiven.

The trick when staging this play is finding a way to navigate the genre-switches.  The Winter’s Tale should come across as a unified play rather than an exercise in schizophrenia. The task has flummoxed many a scholar, critic, and director over the centuries. Local director Melia Bensussen is a good candidate for making being able to weld the two contraries — tragedy and comedy — together. In 2009, Bensussen masterfully dealt with the considerable problems posed by The Taming of the Shrew – smoothly negotiating the moral dissonance between the gender politics of Shakespeare’s age and that of our own. She reinstated the frame story (“the induction scene”) other directors thoughtlessly cut and then introduced subtle, metatheatrical character arcs – the solution was so elegant one almost forgot about the problem.

Once again, Bensussen and her crew manage to knit together opposites. What’s intriguing is how it is done: she avoids high concepts and instead opts for a simple production that focuses on the language of the script and the psychology of the characters, always looking for ways in which the tragic and the comic are knotted together. This is a production in which two sides of the same coin are always in view. This directorial choice pervades the approaches of the actors and designers (specifically costume designer Mary Lauve).

Hinson’s Camilo has clearly grown up in the intervening sixteen years, developing from the naïve young lord who shudders when the king orders him to commit a dishonorable act to a trusted advisor of Polixenes. Gore plays Polixenes’ rage at his son’s betrothal as a diluted reflection of the mad jealousies of his estranged fellow king. Burrows’ Leontes recovers from his madness, but he remains a chastened, self-hating depressive. Marianna Bassham skillfully turns Paulina’s fiery contempt for Leontes’ tyranny down to a simmer after he recovers from his madness. She becomes his resentful caretaker, her loss of both a best friend in Hermione and a husband in Antigonus tempering her humanity.

Jesse Hinson's Clown and Steve Barkhimer's Autolycus in the Actors' Shakespeare Project's production of "The Winter's Tale." Photo: Stratton McCrady.

Jesse Hinson’s Clown and Steve Barkhimer’s Autolycus in the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of “The Winter’s Tale.” Photo: Stratton McCrady.

Burrows’ portrait of Leontes’ madness is particularly admirable. His tone darts in and out of the prosaic, often turning on a dime; he is conversational when speaking to the members of his court, but darkens once he lapses into private expressions of paranoia. Scholars have suggested that Leontes’ persecution of Hermione may be Shakespeare’s veiled criticism of Henry VIII’s persecution of Anne Boleyn – a topic the Bard dared not address two years later in his collaboration with John Fletcher in Henry VIII. (Burrows played the lead role in the ASP’s 2013 production. Arts Fuse reviews here and here.) Sidmore and Gore create a convincingly affectionate picture of the friendship between Hermione and Polixenes — its ease provides nourishment for Leontes’ jealous rage. Sidmore’s transformation from the happy mother-to-be to the persecuted queen — the rare innocent in Shakespeare who is aggressive on defense — is particularly moving. Davis and Teich invest the young inamorata with a greater complexity than is typical of Shakespeare’s light comedies – the depth of feeling is especially impressive given they are not introduced until the fourth act.

There are also notable performances in the comedy segments. Some fine clowning is on display: Burrows’ old shepherd, the adoptive father of Perdita, is eccentrically frantic: every part of his body seems ready to dart off in another direction (perhaps an exaggerated parallel to Leontes’ verbal bifurcation?); Barkhimer’s Autolycus is a delightful trickster, both as a troubadour (accompanying himself on ukulele) and as a slight of hand-artist. His theft of the young shepherd’s clothing (Hinson makes for a terrific mark) is one of the most inspired examples of foolery I’ve seen this year on a Boston stage. Barkhimer, in the guise of other supporting characters, plays a number of unconventional instruments, including mbira (the African thumb piano) and a child’s xylophone.

The keyword for this production’s design is subtlety, but Lauve stands out by dramatizing the passage of time through revelatory changes in fashion. For the tragedy in Sicilia the members of the court are dressed in Edwardian fashions – and elegantly so: long waistcoats and dresses, silk patterened vests and ties. But when the narrative jumps sixteen years ahead to the Bohemian countryside, the garb becomes casual, looser, inspired by the Jazz Age. Time has pushed life ahead, even if the court of Sicilia remains scarred by the tragedy that occurred.

I turned in my best-of-2015 list before seeing this production. I knew that, in all likelihood, The Winter’s Tale would be the last play I would review before the arrival of the New Year. It is a powerful closer to a strong season of offerings. Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of Jenny Schwartz’s God’s Ear won a place on my favorites list. The company’s presentations of Measure for Measure, Henry VI, Part 2, and Othello, with their varying degrees of political and social relevance, were impressive, but it is this Winter’s Tale, with its deft fusion of tragedy and comedy, that is the tip-top ASP Shakespeare production of 2015.

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 The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.

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