Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Winter's Tale"

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note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Larry Stark


"The Winter's Tale"

by William Shakespeare
Directed by Slobodan Unkovski

Set Design by Meta Hocevar
Lighting Design by John Ambrosone
Costume Design by Catherine Zuber
Musical Compositions and Sound by Christopher Walker
Stage Manager Chris De Camillis

Perdita...........................................Sarah Howe
Florizel.......................................Javan Rameau
Paulina..................................Karen MacDonald
Autolycus..................................Thomas Derrah
Mamillius..............Amos Lichtman/Oliver Poole
Old Shepherd................................Jeremy Geidt
His Son........................................Remo Airaldi
Camillo........................................Alvin Epstein
Polixenes....................John Douglas Thompson
Leontes...................................Henry Woronicz
Time.........................................Benjamin Evett
Cleomenes..............................Matthew Francis
Dion...........................................Aaron Kleven
Archidamus................................Aaron Kleven
Antigonus......................Douglas Goodenough
Emilia/Mopsa..........................Denise Williams
Dorcas.......................Naeemah White-Peppers
Hermione................................Mirjana Jokovic

The big news is that "The Winter's Tale" at the A.R.T. is color-coded. All the Sicilians are White, the Bohemians are Black. Bohemia has a black sun whose glow radiates from behind, illuminating a richly orange-red tarpaulin from under which cast-members pop up through slits wearing lushly draped body-exposing costumes and breaking into spirited belly-dancing to densely rhythmic African drumming. Sicilia on the other hand is all flat black walls and a glacially glassy black floor, black costumes, regiments of stationary courtiers, and a black five-foot-high plinth that raises their tyrant above his pleading courtiers as he descends into demented, deadly jealousy. Everything about the long part one and part three, set in Sicilia, is as stultifyingly slow as things in Bohemia are energetic and alive. "The Winter's Tale" is a two-and-three-quarter-hour academic exercise in white versus black.
And Black wins, hands down!

Of course Shakespeare has loaded the dice against Director Slobodan Unkovski. Part one (Acts I - III) is a quick-sketch précis for a Greek tragedy, with a chorus of aghast courtiers (Matthew Francis' Cleomenes, Aaron Kleven's Dion, Douglas Goodenough's Antigonous, and the honest Camillo of Alvin Epstein) pleading with their King Leontes (Henry Woronicz) not to execute his queen (Mirjana Jokovic) because he believes she carries a child by the Bohemian King Polixenes (John Douglas Thompson). Not even an oracle from Apollo himself contradicting his every suspicion can deter this inexplicably unmotivated mad tyrant from exposing his new-born daughter, and the gods apparently kill both his young heir Mamillius (Amos Lichtman or Oliver Poole) and Hermione his queen herself.

The problem of this odd play is making Leontes' mad obsession even vaguely comprehensible, but Director Unkovski never even tries. So this long, bewildering first half becomes merely a long, flat, respectful reading of unconvincing lines. The audience is given no chance to smile or even to nod in agreement, except when the outraged Paulina of Karen MacDonald shouts to the world that Leontes has no clothes. His occasional collapses into grovelling pain are no substitute for any implied motivation. Even the courtroom conflict is vitiated when Mirjana Jokovic's Hermione, perhaps pinning her interpretation on a note that she is "daughter of the King of Russia", reads her long monologue of defense as though it were reflecting long, flat, boring Russian sentences, with no inflection and no emotion whatever.

At the end of the play --- and those who know nothing of the show should ignore this --- Hermione is somehow resurrected. The usual way is to imply that Paulina has kept a queen who did not die secreted for sixteen years, and then presented her as a "lifelike statue" of herself. Here that supposedly life-like statue, its paint still wet, is a crumpled figure, face and hands pressed dangling at the edge of its plinth. (Leontes' line "Her natural posture!" is so dangerous here it should have been cut!) She rises as ashen and other-worldly as Lazarus, denying this ambiguous play any hope of a happy ending.

The only joy in this play is in the earlier half of part two --- a sheep-sheering festival of uninhibited Bohemians, with that now sixteen-year-old daughter Perdita, thinking herself a shepherd's (Jeremy Geidt's), in love with the disguised son of Polixenes. Jovan Rameau and Sarah Howe are a delight, Margaret Eginton's dances are wildly imaginative, and this spring so contrasts with the airless emptiness of Sicilia as to make the return there for the end of the play a tragedy indeed. I have tried, in ranking the cast-list up above, to suggest the most and least successfully realized roles here, but this should not be taken as a criticism of the players. Even the ultimately wooden Hermione, during the first and lively minutes of the play, seems animated and human. The awful fact here is that nothing, not the occasionally ear-splitting mood-music, not the audacious dancing, not the suffocatingly austere Sicilian set nor the depressing final tableau --- none of it is accidental. Once again, audiences will go to the American Repertory Theater to find out what they have done, not with, but done TO Shakespeare.

Love,
===Anon.


"The Winter's Tale" (till 11 June)
AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATRE
64 Brattle Street, CAMBRIDGE
1(617)547-8300

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