Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Winter's Tale"

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Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi

“…though I asked most distinctly for bread and butter, you have given me cake.” --- Oscar Wilde.

Some directors need to be reminded now and then that the Theatre has gotten along without directors for most of its life; their position once belonged to the playwright/actor or manager/actor of a company. The Director came in with the dawn of Realism --- an impartial eye was needed to shape and conceive, to drum out the Theatrical and give the lie that the audience was indeed watching a slice of Life inside a three-walled room. In time, the Cult of the Director as co-Creator and Interpreter, began. Swollen egos may not want to hear this, but no matter how brilliant or innovative or controversial they may be as artists, a director’s function is, was and shall always be to serve the playwright. The play, especially a good one, will remain long after its production has passed away.

Shakespeare is the acid test; many a director will lard the verse with gimmicks rather than make it comprehensible to our tinny ears (hopefully, these wunderkinds can acquire actors who can speak the speech amidst the trappings). Two of Shakespeare’s Romances, PERICLES and THE WINTER’S TALE have been trotted out at the A.R.T.; the former, a full-scale professional production, the other, a student offering. One leaves much to be desired; one has already departed.

"THE WINTER’S TALE"

by William Shakespeare

directed by Jennie Ward

Leontes, king of Sicilia … Dan Domingues
Mamillius, young prince of Sicilia … Ezra Lichtman
Camillo, lord of Sicilia … Jessica Burke
Antigonus, lord of Sicilia … Nick Basta
Cleomines, lord of Sicilia … Bob Mussett
Dion, lord of Sicilia … Sarah Jones
Polixenes, king of Bohemia … Mark Lynch
Florizel, prince of Bohemia … Brady Gill
Shepherd, reputed father of Perdita … Robert Zawistowski
Clown, his son … Stephen Radochia
Hermione, queen to Leontes … Ashley Wren Collins
Perdita, daughter to Leontes and Hermione … Dana Marks
Paulina, wife to Antigonus … Heather Benton
Emilia, a lady attending Hermione … Joanna Miles-Basta
Time, as chorus … Brendon Demay

This student production, which played next door to PERICLES in the Experimental Theatre, came off somewhat better, director Jennie Ward having neither the actors, budget, nor design team that Mr. Serban has at his disposal. Not that Ms. Ward lacked a gimmick --- in her hands, the Bard’s Romance became The Swing Play, due to the contraption that hung downstage center save for Hermione’s trial when it was wisely cranked up to the Experimental’s black heavens. Nearly every Sicilian or Bohemian took a turn as a human pendulum (symbolic of Time’s passing?). If the swinger was the main speaker of a scene, the eye was properly focused; otherwise, he or she upstaged the others who huddled at Stage Left or Right to avoid getting kicked in the teeth. If they weren’t huddling, the actors were sent up and down two steep flights of stairs (also Stage Left and Right) for no apparent reason other than Shakespearean movement = audience’s interest. (In a play that boasts a few miracles, a minor one consisted of Perdita scampering upstairs in high heels, stopping in mid-flight to bow to Florizel above and not falling and breaking her neck --- these stairs lacked railings, you see). Small wonder why I found it difficult to become involved with Ms. Ward’s production --- her drama lay all in her swing and her stairs.

How did Ms. Ward handle (a) the cause of Leontes’ insane jealousy and (b) the Bear? Her Leontes seemed to be paranoiac from the start, turning this way and that to various musical sounds during the Overture; while the Shepherd and Clown cooed over the changeling Perdita, Leontes stumbled back and forth upstage, clutching his head in agony (more upstaging). The Bear was heard but not seen, and Antigonus calmly strolled off to his death.

Ms. Ward changed the TALE’s ending somewhat, casting an actress as the wise Camillo, with each “he” changed to “she” (why wasn’t the character rechristened “Camilla”?). At the play’s conclusion, I expected Leontes would still give Paulina to this feminized Camillo; instead, the ghosts of Antigonus and young Mamillius appeared: the former, to comfort his widow; the latter, to swing where he had swung before. (I have now seen five productions of THE WINTER’S TALE beginning with the A.R.T.’s own controversial version in ‘00; three of them ended with the dead boy’s return which clouds the happy (if contrived) ending; must this directorial whim become a required tradition?)

The Chorus of Time appears to announce the passing of sixteen years; no more, no less. The A.R.T. production had Time as a sinister force with top hat and dreadlocks. Ms. Ward’s Time was a wee Blues Brother sans shades, silently standing or drifting about to register as a Symbol; for his speech, Time formed a pieta with Leontes, stroking him to calmness. There was one (deliberate?) comic touch: the Shepherd haggled with Clown while ever-present Time stood nearby. The Shepherd suddenly turned and threw a line Time’s way which blew that symbol’s cool (i.e., “You mean, you can SEE me?”). Someone was poking fun at Ms. Ward’s concept --- I like to think it was Ms. Ward herself.

Ms. Ward’s biggest stroke, however, paid off in spades --- she omitted the rogue Autolycos, and he wasn’t missed for an instant.

I repeat: Ms. Ward omitted the rogue Autolycos, and he wasn’t missed for an instant. Those who love THE WINTER’S TALE agree that the first half of the play --- the tragic half --- is far superior than the healing second half which tends to ramble with its low comedy and joys of pastoral life. Banishing Autolycos sped things up considerably (it’s amazing how little he connects with the plot), though to balance things lengthwise, Ms. Ward broke for intermission with Leontes exiting to greet the oracles prior to Hermione’s trial.

Dan Domingues, a handsome young man, made a limpid Leontes --- at first I thought he lacked the necessary fire that fuels this maddened King; only afterwards did I realize Mr. Domingues had gotten through the role without once breaking into a rant --- he SANG Leontes rather than tore him to shreds, which is in itself to be applauded. For the record, Mr. Domingues’ voice is smooth and pleasing; with maturity and experience, it could develop into an equally handsome instrument. By contrast, Ashley Wren Collins did rant and shred as Hermione --- her Queen was alternately silly and haughty --- more of a Gertrude, really --- but she had that coveted ace up her sleeve: Hermione’s trial, where she entered with shattered composure and empty womb --- she moved me to tears, damn it, just as the four Queens did before her, each in her own way. However, Ms. Collins’ death-exit became near-farcical: the actors who carried her off had to pause to open an (unseen) upstage-right door and were forced to shift the tall, horsy Ms. Collins about to keep from dropping her (if this were a Mel Brooks comedy, that door would be locked and the actors would finally prop Ms. Collins in a corner like a bag of laundry). And, yes, the Statue of Hermione was discovered on that swing….

Perhaps if this TALE ran for a month or so, Ms. Ward might have considered Ms. Collins switching roles with Heather Benton, who contributed a surprisingly sexy Paulina (not at all the usual fishwife); each actress is temperamentally better suited for this turnabout: Ms. Collins could rant to her heart’s content yet still be convincing in her anger, and Ms. Benton would bring a lover’s ardor and a mother’s warmth (along with plenty of dignified steel) to the unjustly accused Queen.

If Jessica Burke, the Camillo, could collect a dollar for every time I will describe her as “cool and bewitching”, she would become a very rich woman. And, yet, the more I see of Ms. Burke onstage, the more I realize she has to be cast very carefully: she is a Presence; i.e., she is far more effective when doing less, not more. When she heats up, she is surprisingly conventional; lower her to the right temperature and she is riveting with her solemn, tolling voice. She is best suited to monolithic roles or at least roles played in a monolithic manner where her impassive beauty can utter untold volumes (she would be excellent as a cold Regan rather than a shrewish Goneril). Ms. Burke was marking time as Camillo; hopefully better opportunities are embedded in her future. (Can she sing and dance, I wonder? I’ve just had a vision of her as an impish Lola in DAMN YANKEES….)

Robert Zawistowski, a senior Shepherd, was positively rollicking in his comedy; so much so that I wonder what his Autolycos would have been like had he been retained, and Ezra Lichtman was an engaging, Huck Finn-like Mamillius.

Raul Lapa’s costumes ran from medieval to periwigs to Texas trailer trash (complete with accents); I gather the Experimental apples don’t fall too far from the A.R.T. branch.

Let the sunshine in! Along with some bread and butter!

"The Winter’s Tale" (29 May-1 June)
AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATRE (A.R.T.)
The Experimental Theatre at Loeb Drama Center
64 Brattle Street, CAMBRIDGE, MA
1 (617) 547-8300

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