note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Courtney Graff
As the premier professional theater company in the Boston area, the American Repertory Theatre shoulders the burden of protecting and uplifting theater in this part of the country. The ART commands sizable audiences and charges liberally for their patronage. Patrons who are exhilarated by an expensive evening on Brattle St. can only be encouraged to attend less costly local productions.
This is partly why the current production of "The Winter's Tale" is such a disappointment. The ART had the wherewithal to assemble a small army of talented theater professionals to tackle Shakespeare's sprawling, disturbing, joyous and sure-handed tragicomedy, yet the result misses or undercuts the many magical moments in the play. Few of those in attendance this past Saturday night can have been encouraged to risk their time and their money on a more modest production offered by the aspiring professionals and part-timers at smaller local companies.
Three actors alone out of a cast of twenty-one capture the liveliness and poignancy of Shakespeare's characters. Jeremy Geidt, Remo Airaldi, and Thomas Derrah present sprightly, imaginative, exuberant and, in their faithfulness to the frailty and foolishness of human beings, sublimely bittersweet interpretations. It is a joy to watch and listen to them because they clearly know the meaning of what they were saying and communicate it to the audience.
In contrast, the rest of the cast seems preoccupied with making Shakespeare's lines sound "natural". They focus on cadences and emphasis at the expense of meaning. Shakespeare's lines are not and should not sound natural: it is not natural, even for the most high-brow among us, to speak in iambic pentameter. It is not natural to say things like: "It is a bawdy planet, that will strike/Where 'tis predominant; and 'tis powerful, think it,/From east, west, north, and south; be it concluded,/No barricado for a belly ." The lines are, however, rich in meaning and insight and poetic power, a sound beyond naturalness and resplendent in expressiveness. Much of this meaning is lost in the studied rise and fall of the actors' voices.
Likewise, the direction by Slobodan Unkovski often suffocates the words. The production is frequently punctuated by loud music more appropriate to an action movie soundtrack; the director relies on the sound design to set the mood of the scenes. The music swells during portentous scenes as if reminding the audience to pay attention, then abruptly cuts off to let the actors deliver their lines. This creates a jarring effect that detracts from Shakespeare's careful words.
The catalytic scene I,ii presents the fateful threesome of Leontes, his wife Hermione, and his friend Polixenes. Leontes watches his wife and friend flatter one another and becomes catastrophically consumed by sexual jealousy. Mr. Unkovski, however, places Hermione and Polixenes so far apart for much of the scene, and in such angular postures when near one another, that it is difficult to locate the source of Leontes's suspicions. His jealousy may be unwarranted, but to make it utterly unaccountable is to make him a ridiculous, dismissable character, and not the dangerous and powerful threat the following action demands that he must be.
In addition, the mature Shakespeare who wrote "The Winter's Tale" had already explored the motiveless evil of Iago. Leontes is the tragic cousin of Iago, a good man who does a number of very bad things with what seems the slimmest of provocation. Shakespeare does not attempt to explain this away there are no cauldron-stirring witches whispering in his ear, no arguable political ideals to justify conspiracy and murder. There is only Leontes and his decisions, an inexorable chain from a plot to poison Polixenes to accusation of Hermione to condemnation of his newborn daughter to disregard of the Oracle to the death by grief of his young son and the subsequent swooning and announced death of Hermione. The audience is not permitted to explain away his actions, but only to absorb them as we must absorb so many meannesses and cruelties in life.
Mr. Unkovski, however, peppers Leontes' court with the expanded part of the character Time, a whirling dervish in a dirty white jumpsuit, fingerless red gloves, long red dreadlocks, and a top hat. He looks like Boy George as a member of a droog. He carries a long light stick and spins around brandishing the stick whenever evil wafts into the play. He is the inescapable embodiment of a malevolent force that "explains" Leontes' actions, thus undercutting Shakespeare and removing the most disturbing and realistic aspect of the play.
And so Leontes is reduced in this production to a mere puppet of the Devil/Time character. When Leontes and his guilty torment are thus made uninteresting, Paulina and her Hermione statue become meaningless and the last scene of the play merely tedious. After fifteen years of stewing in tormented guilt and sorrow, Leontes once again faces the one he loved and wronged so tragically. Mr. Unkovski, however, denies the audience the force of Shakespeare's magic. He places the statue upstage and Leontes downstage looking at it. We in the audience are unable to see Leontes' face. It is like Lear reuniting with Ophelia offstage, or Juliet never awakening to see Romeo dead. The impact of the scene is lost, the audience left feeling empty.
At the close of the scene and the play, Mr. Unkovski sends most of the actors marching solemnly offstage. Perdita remains center-left kneeling and sobbing. Leontes, after the long-sought miracle of a reunion with Hermione, walks away from her and exits. Hermione turns, alone, walks past her long-lost daughter, and gazes upstage right, where the image of her dead son flits briefly into view. Hermione isolated, looking backward, ignoring the present. End of play.
She might as well have stayed dead.