Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale" at Center Stage:
This Play's A Mess for Many Reasons
In 1614, Ben Jonson took a swipe at his recently-retired rival Shakespeare, whose penchant toward the end of his career had been to pander to the popular taste for stories and plays whose plots defied the laws of nature, avoided psychological truth and physical reality, and generally "made nature afraid." Jonson was talking specifically about "The Winter's Tale." On this one, I'm with Ben.
As drama, "The Winter's Tale" is a mess. Its plot is almost untellable, but here goes: Leontes, King of Sicilia, turns on his pregnant wife and his best friend, accusing them of adultery. The friend, Polyxenes, King of Bohemia, escapes with his life, while Hermione gives birth to a daughter and dies, as does her older child, a son. The baby daughter is abandoned to die (a la Oedipus), but is whisked away to Bohemia, where she is found by a simple sheepherder and his dopey son. Oh, and did I mention that the servant who saved the baby's life is killed by a big blue bear?
Intermission. Sixteen years later, the baby has grown up to be a sweet young thing who is in love with a guy she doesn't know is heir to the throne of Bohemia. Because Polyxenes doesn't want his son marrying a country girl, the boy and girl run awayto Sicilia, where her father, mad king Leontes, has regained his sanity and mourns the loss of his wife, son and daughter. All are reunited, and it turns outsurprise!that Hermione, the late queen, isn't really late after all, and has just been waiting (sixteen years) for the time when her husband will have truly repented to reveal herself to him. Happy ending.
The play is a mess for many reasons: unlike the great Othello and Much Ado About Nothing, both of which are about the results of insane jealousy, in Winter's Tale Leontes' madness is unprovoked, it just happens, and is forgiven in the end because he's sorry. But Leontes' jealousy caused his son's death, and it's okay as long as he's sorry? No matter how you play it, it doesn't work.
While Shakespeare was never one to leave well enough alone (how many of his plays involve a shipwreck? Or foolish men and wise women? Or jealousy?), more than just about any other of the canon, this one looks like Will pulled an all-nighter to get something on stage. He went back to the jealousy well, but didn't have enough plot to fill an entire evening of theater, so he seems to have decided on what feels like a whim to put any old thing in the middle to fill up the requisite two-plus hours. The old thing he decided on was "As You Like It," with its shepherds and shepherdesses, rogues and princes. He generally didn't bother to write this one very well. Besides being all over the stylistic, thematic and psychological map (maps?), he commits the dramatist's greatest crime: instead of showing us the big, emotional, dramatic scene that reunites father and daughter, and father and son, he has the servants tell us about it.
So what's a director to do? Well, a director can pick another Shakespeare play to do; there are, after all, 37 of them, and about 35 of those are worth doing more than this one. But if a director's got it in her head to do "Winter's Tale," then she can find a visual style that will support the play's themes and direct it in a way that minimizes the play's more egregious elements--the misogyny, the unmotivated action, the unfunny funny stuff, the forgiving of the unforgivable.
Or, as Irene Lewis does here and has done frequently in other Shakespeare productions, she can throw everything at it (except fine acting) in hopes that something will stick.
Visually, the production is just eye-poppingly gorgeous, even when it's wrong. Candice Donnelly's costumes are beautiful and goofy: the men of Sicilia dress in somber black, perhaps a precursor of certain elements from modern Sicily, while Bohemia, that landlocked country that Shakespeare gives a shoreline to, seems lost in the disco 70s, with several men dressing like Central European wild and crazy guys in Ronald Reagan masks. Even camouflage get-up (a Shakespearean word) has psychedelic tones. But the Ronald Reagan masks are just a cheap laugh. Christine Jones' sets are exquisite. The burnished gold walls of Sicilia dazzle, the impressionist landscape of Bohemia delights; and the sun is never just a sun: it's a ferris wheel, or a sheep. Or maybe that's the moon. Or several of them.
The artistic imagination at play on the stage is constantly inventive, but to what purpose? In the end, it's all flash and no substance, and the more flash, the more we are aware of the no substance.
Maybe it would work better if Lewis had assembled a cast that could do credit to the poetry, but although most of the actors have many Shakespeares to their credit, the acting here, as in most of Lewis' Shakespeare productions, is invariably pleasant and competent, with a couple of exceptions, but nothing more.
Caitlin O'Connell is always a pleasure to watch and listen to; she is one of the most consistently excellent actors we see at Center Stage, and her servant Paulina, one of Shakespeare's stronger women, has a heft missing from the other characters and actors in this production. Olivia Berkelund is a beautiful and strong Hermione, and Mark Elliott Wilson is a striking Polyxenes, even if he doesn't have much to do.
But Jon DeVries, in his Center Stage debut, can't find a character to play in the mad, jealous Leontes, and Leontes is the emotional center of the play. Far from regal even in his sane moments, DeVries is more a small town sheriff than a king, and we must read the program notes to know that he's gone mad.
Perhaps Irene Lewis was taking a leaf from Shakespeare's book, and she thought, "If he can produce a dramatic retread, so can I," but if the center does not hold, it doesn't matter how beautiful the sets are.
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This story was published on March 2, 2002.