There’s a lot to be said about the beginning of Theatre for a New Audience‘s production of The Winter’s Tale, a wonderfully rendered production of one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’. This is mainly because the first three acts are filled with intense psychological drama, while the last two acts are remarkably different in tone, comedic, pastoral, and with an ending that is surprisingly a happy one. The first three acts could be considered a classic tragedy in and of itself, but the second part is a different kind of play, leaving many bewildered and not just because of the non-sensical location and production instructions. The most famous being the stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear“. And within those simple words, a structure of the opening and a general mood for the play in its entirety is adopted by the talented director, Arin Arbus (TFANA’s Measure for Measure). The bear in question doesn’t wait around to be summoned midway through this tall tale, but arrives first thing, frolicking in the snow, parading around joyfully with claws exposed but a dance in his step. It is not known what Shakespeare intended when writing those infamous directions.
Is this creature actually fully required to move this play forward, or was he a playful addition or amusement? Did Shakespeare himself use a real bear from the London bear-pits (I’m hoping not) or did he dress up an actor, much like costume designer Emily Rebholz (Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen) has done, in a bear costume? Regardless of his creative thinking, Arbus has decided to utilize the bear as a tell-tale sign that, like Shakespeare and the what the title of this play suggests, The Winter’s Tale is a story that is basically chimeric, untethered to realism with a grand tragic structure laid on top of the first half to give resonance to the overall. Traditionally speaking, it is thought that a true winter’s tale is something told to children around a roaring fire, an old wives’ tale told for pleasure and distraction, or some type of legend based in a fantastical land that has nothing to do with reality, all of which offer the audience a promise of a happy ending and should not be taken seriously. And what better way to elicit that reaction then to see an actor obviously dressed in a bear costume playing on stage, seemingly dangerous but theatrically fake and ultimately harmless, hiding away for his entrance later. It’s slightly ridiculous and distracting, a concept we will have to bare, but Arbus’ point is solid in the making even as it doesn’t fit entirely well with the mood of the first half.
Back in 1590, there was a play by George Peele called The Old Wives’ Tale, in which a storyteller tells “a merry winter’s tale” of a missing daughter, and it is thought that Shakespeare, being influenced by this, created his own version but a tad less merry, but warns us early on of this distinction through the young prince, Mamillius (Eli Rayman) that “a sad tale’s best for winter”. And indeed, this play and Arbus’ tight and shortened adaptation, whittling down five acts to two, starts out on a highly dramatic and psychologically upsetting structure, with a flailing jealous rage and vengeful thoughts from an insecure King. The first half is painful and disturbing as King Leontes of Sicilia, played with remarkable authenticity by Anatol Yusef (Public’s Hamlet), goes from loving husband and friend, to a raging and jealous tyrant, desperate for revenge and destruction. His hand, quite magnificently, starts to quiver progressively as that tremor of jealousy grows and grows inside of him, a warning sign to us all about what is about to fly out.
It’s frightening and spectacular to take in mentally and visually, as he steadfastly ignores all those that surround him, and acts quite aggressively and impulsively on behalf of this fever. He asks a faithful lord, Camillo, played solidly by Michael Rogers (Born Bad), to poison the King’s lifelong boyhood friend, Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, played warmly and stoically by Dion Mucciacito (LCT’s Golden Boy), because the fever of suspicious has so wrapped his soul. He can’t help himself, but continues to insist that his dear friend has been carrying on an affair these past nine months with his lovely and very pregnant wife, Hermoine, played regally by the warm-voiced Kelley Curran (Bedlam’s Peter Pan). It’s a wildly frenetic visual, watching the King’s trembling journey to the irrational, utilizing his God-given right of privilege and authoritarian rule over all as the only piece of evidence required. Respect is demanded and loyalty required, or else the bear of irrationality will raise its clawed hand and devour you.
Wisely and courageously, Camillo ignores the King’s madness, and informs Polixenes of the plot against him, and the two escape in the middle of the same night back to the kingdom of Bohemia. Reeling from this betrayal, and his strongly held belief of his wife’s adultery, Leontes imprisons his faithful wife, claiming the baby she is carrying is not his, even as his nobles voice their disbelief in his actions and claims. Hermoine gives birth to a baby girl all while falsely accused and locked away, but luckily for the royal, she has a loyal and dear friend, Paulina, played miraculously by the fire-ball Mahira Kakkar (EST’s When January Feels Like Summer) who has the guts and forcefulness that is far superior to all the men around the King, to stand up to Leontes, and attempt to utilize the infant as a way in to the King’s heart. But even her bravery is met with stone cold solidness in his dementia, escalating his insanity above and beyond any reasonable position. That dancing bear is not dancing the same dance anymore, it’s a far more demented one.
The production of The Winter’s Tale is quickly paced, with all of this action flying by at a well orchestrated and confident speed, deftly constructing a line of action that ultimately needs to feel true, especially in regards to the King’s irrational and quick descent into madness. Arbus with a strong assist from Yusef does just that, and even when the Oracle proclaims Hermoine’s innocence, the King powers on, causing death and destruction all around him. The Oracle not surprisingly states categorically that Hermione and Polixenes are indeed innocent, Camillo is an honest man, and that Leontes will have no heir until his lost daughter is found. Only when the Oracle’s proclamation is shown to have some predictive validity, culminating with the sad death of his young son, does the King finally hesitate and finally question his omnipresence. In the end, he is seemingly left a widow and childless, destroyed by all that he has done to himself, all because of the red rage of jealousy that took over his soul.
But things might not be exactly as it seems for the King as the spit-fire Paulina has some plans of her own up her sleeve, as does her husband, the gentle Lord Antigonus, played strongly by the impressive Oberon K.A. Adjepong (Public’s Party People). Charged with the task of ridding the world of Hermoine’s new infant daughter, he has spirited away this new-born to the coast of Bohemia, where, as per Shakespeare’s stage directions stipulate, the honorable Lord gets chased away (and eaten) by that same dancing bear (Arnie Burton in a fun costume) that has been waiting in the wings for his grand entrance. The sleeping child though, is saved; rescued quite charmingly by a poor but lovely old shepherd, portrayed kindly by John Keating (TFANA’s Pericles) and his simple sweet son, most commonly referred to as “Clown”, perfectly enlivened by Ed Malone (Irish Rep’s The Home Place). The bear of irrationality and also the one from the wilderness have both done their job, fulfilling the possibility of the prediction, and readying us for the shift into another more bucolic world.
That’s the end of Arbus’ Act One, and although it feels like a lot to take in, with a heavy dose of tragic overtones clawing at all of us, it flies by smoothly and effortlessly, leaving us strongly instructed but emotionally traumatized for the duration of the intermission. Act Two though, starts out on a solidly different land, playful and happily 16 years later, with ‘Time’ himself, played gloriously by Robert Langdon Lloyd (Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) ushering us all back into the tale, and granting us a reprieve from all the dramatic trauma. This beginning is really the fourth act of The Winter’s Tale, an act that was once upon a time widely popular in the 19th Century for its playfulness and the bucolic landscape of Bohemia.
This more joyous fairytale of sorts finds King Polixenes of Bohemia in a similar bearish emotional state as the other King, filled with a suspicious rage believing, quite rightly this time, that his son, Prince Florizel, played sweetly by Eddie Ray Jackson (CSC’s Much Ado About Nothing) has fallen in love. He also believes that he will be soon to be betrothed to a lowly shepherd girl, Perdita, played charmingly by Nicole Rodenburg (Barrow Street’s The Flick), and that just can’t be allowed. (Can you guess just who this young gal will turn out to be? If you can’t you might need to read up on Shakespeare and his romantic comedies a wee bit more before venturing to TFANA.) Together with the home-sick Camillo, the King decides to disguise themselves, naturally, and venture over to the sheep-shearing festival in hopes of disrupting his lovestruck son’s plans. A lowly shepherd’s daughter is just not the right match for a prince, you see, but before the feast begins, we are taken on a side journey, down a Shakespearian path of ‘fool’-ishness. We are introduced quite joyfully to a playful rogue peddler, vagabond, and pickpocket, by the name of Autolycus, well-played by the always reliable and very funny Arnie Burton (The Government Inspector), who strolls in and shifts the dynamics with his witty and mischievous manner away from the obsessive Royal, and back to the playful. This seems to be this character’s main function, to divert us down a pathway with a silliness that is reminiscent of a Puck, Grace-digger, or a Fool. He doesn’t drive this story homeward in any forceful manner that it couldn’t manage on its own, just like the dancing bear, but this particular road is a lot more fun when led by this mischievous thief. Especially as we all know pretty much where this tale is heading, so joining in with the ridiculous fun of Burton’s perfect game just seems like a good idea, even though we also see the meaninglessness of his ploy.
The final scenario, the fifth act, is all about forgiveness, even in the face of all the damage a delusional and obstinate King can create. Both these regale masters seem quite willing to destroy their families in order to hold onto their respectful position of monarch, and maybe because of the grace of their Gods, they all come out in the end happy and filled with contentment. Does Leontes’ deserve a happy ending? Some may wonder, but forgiveness is the key that holds The Winter’s Tale all together, and his declarations of sadness, loss, and guilt for his long dead wife cause the Gods, just like in the classic Greek myth, Pygmalion (for a reference to this myth, click here to read my reviews of two one-act operas recently performed at NYC Opera), to breathe life into the marble statue of Hermoine and return her to his arm. Or, as some may suggest, the whip-smart Paulina might have triumphed over them all, orchestrating a secret story of hidden deception that has skillfully been kept out of sight over these past 16 years. This is for you to decide what direction you want to view this magical moment, although I tend to lean towards the later. Northrup Frye wrote “Much is said about magic in the final scene, but there is no magician, no Prospero, only the sense of a participation in the redeeming and reviving power of a nature identified with art, grace, and love. Hence the final recognition is appropriately that of a frozen statue turning into a living presence, and the appropriate Chorus is Time, the destructive element which is also the only possible representative of the timeless” (Recognition in The Winter’s Tale, 1962).
Regardless of what you believe in the end, forgiveness is the sweetness of the feast, and the charming denouement. Although, Arbus has just one more idea to throw out to us as this odd and romantic play comes to an end, and that is in the form of the young Mamillius, portrayed by the sweet Eli Rayman (The Duke’s Sleepy Hollow). He runs across the stage at the last moment, reminding us all that not all things can be tidied up with a nice enchanted bow in the end. “Forgiveness is not in forgetting, but in remembering” states W.H. Auden in his 1947 Lecture on Shakespeare. This young son died a sad death because of the King’s obstinance, and the Gods were unable to rectify that bit of sadness, just like Lord Antigonus’ death at the clawed hands of a dancing bear. Redemption and reconciliation are the fundamental key of this play’s metamorphosis, and when forgiveness and pardoning of wrongs are asked for, they are seemingly pointless in vocally granting, as it is obviously given by those who have been wronged. Some parts of impulsive aggression though, can not be fixed, nor forgiven, since a wild and irrational bear, even when dancing a royal gig, can reap as much damage and death as a jealous or suspicious king. No matter how charming the dancing bear is.