Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Winter's Tale"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

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note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi


" THE WINTER'S TALE "

By William Shakespeare
Directed by John Hume

Jeffrey C. Barrett…..Antigonus
Jeffrey T. Braun…..Jailer/Officer/Old Shepherd
Ken Buswell…..Polixenes
Diane L. Christoforo…..Clown
Jocelyn K. D'Arcy…..Mamilius
Graham E. Derryberry….Archidamus/Mariner/Shepherd
Brandy L. Evans…..Cleomenes
Kim Falinski…..Emilia/Dancing Shepherdess
Rachel L. Kline…..Paulina
Daniel D. Liston…..First Lord
Sarah McDougal…..Autolycus
Lisa R. Messeri…..Leontes' Servant/Dorcas
Catherine Miller…..Paulina's Atendant/Shepherdess
Rikky Muller…..Hermione
Bob Mussett…..Leontes
Michael Ouelette…..The Voice of Time
Joshua C. Randall…..Florizel
Richard C. Reifsnyder…..Camillo
Kay U. Sullivan…..Second Lord/Second Gentleman/Mopsa
Rydia Q. Vielehr…..Perdita

There are a few performances left of the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble’s THE WINTER’S TALE, and if you’ve never seen this Romance of Jealousy/Winter and Forgiveness/Spring – or hated the A.R.T.’s controversial 2000 production and have sworn the play off forever – then this college production will prove a nice little stop-gap until a more adult TALE comes along. Many in the cast are too young to sing this complex score and many a heart be green, but Simplicity and Sincerity prove to be the twin sails that blow their TALE to safe harbor.

For the longest time, THE TEMPEST was the only one of Shakespeare’s Romances performed on a regular basis, but THE WINTER’S TALE has slowly, slowly, been gaining on it (can CYMBELINE be far behind?). The TALE may never be placed alongside the masterpieces of Shakespeare’s Mature Period nor may it ever become “popular”, but it is endlessly fascinating to see or read and a tempting challenge for directors, actors and designers – the challenge being Acts I – III are darkest tragedy (Leontes’ irrational jealousy leads to the deaths of his wife and son and the banishment of his newborn daughter) and Acts IV – V are healing, pastoral comedy (the daughter is found; husband and wife are miraculously reunited), and how to join these distinctly different halves into a whole? The main source for the TALE comes from Robert Greene’s novel PANDOSTRO, OR THE TRIUMPH OF TIME (1588); in the novel, the King’s jealousy leads to his wife’s death and daughter’s banishment; years later, the King commits suicide after conceiving a passion for his newly-found daughter, now a grown woman. Seen as a tragedy, this suicide seems inevitable and just; but Shakespeare broke off this ending and brought in the rogue Autolycus, shepherds, a sheep-shearing festival, and the Statue of Hermione. Why? Perhaps he wanted to send his audience home happy; perhaps to show that people can change for the better; but, even more so, perhaps he changed the ending for himself, both as Man and as Artist (his Sonnets and OTHELLO show he was no stranger to sexual jealousy), and it comes as no surprise that THE TEMPEST soon followed: serene, forgiving, and Shakespeare’s Farewell.

If you love THE WINTER’S TALE – and I do – you’re bound to come to each production with your own list of Things To Look For. Here is mine:

1. How is Leontes’ sudden jealousy brought about?

Some scholars say that King Leontes of Sicilia already harbors suspicions that his Queen, Hermione – in her ninth month with child – has cuckolded him with his childhood friend King Polixenes of Bohemia and that his prompting her to beg Polixenes to stay on with them is to confirm these suspicions, thus his “Too hot, too hot!” aria is ready to be sung, in all its dark orchestrations.

At MIT, Leontes’ character starts to change with the following lines:

LEONTES: Is he won yet?
HERMIONE: He’ll stay, my lord.
LEONTES: At my request he would not.

Leontes says “At my request…” as he turns in an aside. (Is he hurt at his own rejection and jealous of Hermione’s success?) He moves apart from the pair (ironically, while discussing his own courtship) and watches them, suddenly erupting into “Too hot, too hot!” This interpretation also works, for if this jealousy be a fit that steals across Leontes, it just as quickly leaves him at the announcement that both his wife and son are dead.

2. What are the countries of Sicilia and Bohemia like?

Shakespeare switches the kingdoms of PANDOSTRO; thus, Bohemia becomes the Great Good Place; the Land of Spring. (He has taken ribbing through the ages for this action, for Bohemia has no seacoast to lay the banished infant on – but Shakespeare’s Bohemia, like Prospero’s Isle, is not to be found on any map.)

MIT’s production is performed in a lecture hall on the second floor of the Student Center. There is a small, rectangular platform in the lecture area; a clock’s face (sans hands) is painted on it. A large sheet hangs behind the platform, titles are occasionally flashed upon it from a slide projector at the back of the room. Very simple, and very effective (though the hall’s acoustics leave much to be desired). Thus, the production’s costumes must evoke the time and place, and Alice Tsay has designed lovely ones, for the court and for the fields, which place the characters in the late 18th century (making Leontes’ consulting of the god Apollo, shall we say, anachronistic) . For a play that dwells so much on Time, the bare setting and the fairy-tale costumes surpass it and step into the Timeless.

(A.R.T.’s Sicilia was one huge black box with a white square in the back wall for all entrances, and Bohemia could have been Northern Africa for all the hot browns, reds and beiges that flowed across its stage.)

3. What about the Bear?

There’s no Bear to chase Antigonus off to his death in the most famous stage direction ever written – ‘Exit, pursued by a bear.’ We only hear the beast – briefly. Perhaps MIT was afraid a student in a bear suit would provoke laughter from his/her classmates in the audience – but they would at least have known what was going on – the scene as performed is too rushed, and the Clown (see below) concentrates more on making funny faces and voices then in describing both Antigonus’ death and the drowning of the ship’s crew.

(Oddly, A.R.T. gave us Three Bears – Papa, Mama, and Baby – and polar ones, at that.)

4. How is Time dressed and played?

Paulina kneels on the platform and silently reads the Oracle’s prophecy, while Time’s muffled speech – damn those acoustics – is heard as a voiceover. A nice touch, and it lends creditability to the Statue Scene, for in the last act, Paulina – now Keeper of the Plot – makes the reformed Leontes vow he will not re-marry until his lost child be found, thus keeping with the Oracle’s prophecy.

(A.R.T. turned Time into a sinister figure – dreadlocks and top hat and wielding a pole with a red light at one end and a white light at t’other – and (like BTW’s Witches in their recent MACBETH) had him onstage throughout, propelling the characters forward – which completely went against Shakespeare’s intention – Time is supposed to heal, not wound.)

5. Are the tragic and comic strands blended?

Part I – which ends with the Shepherd and Clown finding the newborn Perdita – is quite good; director John C. Hume kept a tight rein on the growing catastrophe and the Court Scene – culminating in Hermione’s offstage death and Leontes’ shocked return to sanity – was profoundly moving; and this be a college production! (Equally moving was my glancing around at the students in the audience and seeing that they were very much in the grip of this 400-year-old play.) Mr. Hume’s Part II doesn’t quite jell with Part I – but that is mostly the TALE’s fault: Leontes’ frenzy drives Part I forward irresistibly, but then he disappears for most of Part Two, and the plot line lies down with the sheep and grows fat, only to pick up again with, ironically, Polixenes’ sudden rages against his son Florizel and the boy’s love interest, Perdita – raised as a shepherdess and thus unsuitable for a Prince. There is also a mini-Court Masque in Part II, which includes singing and dancing – and the hanging plot line drops down a few more notches. How ironic, that for all of Bohemia’s life-exulting Spring, all is resolved back in the wintry land of Sicilia!

6. How is Autolycus played?

A.R.T. turned Autolycus into a sinister, hissing Thing (why? He’s part of the healing Comedy), but MIT gave us a merry rogue in the form of one Sarah McDougal. At first, I couldn’t tell if this tall, young woman played Autolycus of any particular sex (though she did wear her hair braided and down her back) – but when she re-entered wearing false whiskers and a cap with a pheasant’s feather that trailed behind her, beaming with her tray of ribbons and baubles, I found her Autolycus to be a loveable and charming fellow (Ms. McDougal’s constant plucking down of her beard in order to speak reminded me of the old “Whiskers” song: “Oh, they’re always in the way, Cows eat them for hay….”). Another nice touch: for Autolycus’ final scene, instead of following behind his/her new masters, Old Shepherd and Clown, Autolycus instead picks their pockets and goes his/her own way with a smile.

7. How is the Statue Scene done?

Either the Queen really died and this is marble come to life, or Paulina has hidden her away for sixteen years. Either one is implausible, but, oh, how moving it is when Hermione steps down to embrace her repentant husband! I believe the second approach works best – for once Perdita has been found, and the two Kings have bonded again, all that needs to be done is for Paulina to produce Hermione – and the prophecy is fulfilled. I believe Mr. Hume has chosen this interpretation. Either way, the scene works – get out your handkerchiefs.

(In my sillier moments, I would love to see the curtain raised on the Statue of Hermione posed as a Vargas Girl, chatting on the phone….and you thought I was a purist! Nyah!)

8. And – after seeing the A.R.T. production – is the original ending retained?

Yes! The happy couples exit, two by two, to the strains of Pachelbel’s “Canon”.

(The A.R.T.’s ending made me want to stand up and yell, “NO!”, for its Hermione started to exit with Leontes only to suddenly draw back and turn instead to a image of their dead son. All was NOT forgiven at A.R.T. – and I know I was not the only audience member to feel betrayed.)

The cast of MIT’s WINTER’S TALE is composed of MIT students, graduates, faculty and community members, a number of them having appeared in last year’s AS YOU LIKE IT, which I also enjoyed (see my review in 2001), and it was good to see them again. Some did not shine as brightly as they did in AYLI, but that play was more in tune with their own youthful spirits (some of TALE’s actors struck me as the results of Mr. Hume calling out, “Hey! YOU! Wanna be in a show?”) But, for a college production, I give this TALE’s actors their laurels (though not all of the leaves have opened).

In musical terms, Bob Mussett (Leontes) and Rachel L. Kline (Paulina) have the best voices. Mr. Mussett started off as a rather pallid King, but he soon brought out the Big Guns as the green-eyed monster consumed him, and each of his arias (again, well-guided by Mr. Hume) had me shaking my head at his folly and madness – as Harold Bloom wrote, here’s an Othello who’s his own Iago. (Mr. Mussett had a chilling moment during the Court Scene: Hermione touched his arm in an attempt at reconciliation and Mr. Mussett recoiled as if stung – she had become that detestable to him.) And his reformed Leontes, though subdued, had a subtle richness to him that his earlier, pallid self had lacked. Ms. Kline was fascinating to listen to – her lines were well-shaded and inflected; my only quibble being that her personal volume was turned down too low and, with the hall’s bad acoustics and her tendency to speak while facing upstage, I couldn’t hear much of what she had to say (and Paulina has plenty, I grant you). Still, Ms. Kline brought a fierce righteousness that matched and cut through Leontes’ rants, but she lacked the necessary warmth for Part II – Paulina, too, should mellow in time; otherwise, why marry off the good Camillo to a fishwife?

Having given a smile and a nod to Ms. McDougal’s Autolycus (see above), I was glad to see Brandy Evans again, this time in the gender-bending role of Cleomenes. Ms. Evans was a wonderfully blowzy Audrey in AYLI (and I listed her milkmaid among the Most Memorable Performances of 2001); I confess I did not recognize her as the dignified matron who brings forth the Oracle’s Book of Prophecy – this young actress has range, and though she has already graduated, I hope she will stay in the area and continue to charm us. Diane L. Christoforo, who showed sharp comic timing as AYLI’s silly, vain Phoebe, plays the TALE’s Clown right out of vaudeville -– her motto being “Make ‘em Laugh, Or Die!” If Ms. Christoforo continues to play the comedienne, I hope she will relax and let the humor flow from character and situation and not rely so much on schtick – right now she is busy polishing what is only half-formed. Rikky Muller was a warm, plump, maternal Hermione (glowing with sensual life in her ninth month), though, like many young actresses taking on the Bard, her voice tended to harden and shake in declamation. Still, she was affecting in her two moments of silence – Hermione, in chains, entering from prison to be tried for imagined sins; her hair hanging down, her womb now empty – I confess my eyes watered at the sight; and they grew wet again when the Statue came to life, stepping down to Leontes; the light of Forgiveness shining in her eyes. May a future director cast Ms. Muller again as Hermione when her voice can encompass it.

Though she played the small part of Emilia, Hermione’s Lady who accompanies her to prison, I must single out Kim Falinski for her moving little contribution to this production. (Earlier she had played the lusty old farmer Corin in AYLI – here’s another actress with a range.) When Emilia first appears in the Hermione-Mamilius scene, she is dressed like a Watteau figure, a flattened bonnet on the side of her gathered-up hair – a fashionable Lady of the Court. When Paulina comes to the prison to inquire on Hermione’s health, Emilia enters to report the news of Perdita’s birth. Ms. Falinski quietly appeared, dressed in stark black, her hair down and unraveled to one side. Her shoulders, slumped; her manner, cowed. All that the audience needed to know of Hermione’s captivity was reflected in Ms. Falinski at that moment. Ms. Falinski repeated her entrance for the Court Scene, quietly moving to a bench off to the side. After Ms. Falinski came Ms. Muller, and the latter’s humbled appearance may not have been as affecting had Ms. Falinski's entrance not prepared us for it. Throughout the Court Scene, I kept sneaking glances over at Ms. Falinski, who continued to sit there, numbly waiting to hear the news of her Queen’s fate – my thanks to her, Mr. Hume and Ms. Tsay for proving there is truly no such thing as a small part in the theatre, especially when played as eloquently as this.

I say, anyone for ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL?

"The Winter's Tale (14 – 23 March)
MIT SHAKESPEARE ENSEMBLE
La Sala de Puerto Rico, Student Center, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 84 Massachusetts Avenue, CAMBRIDGE, MA
1(617) 253-2903

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