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Monday, 16 April 2012 16:03

A hazy shade of winter

Written by Andrea Braun
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A hazy shade of winter
mustardseedtheatre.com

The Winter’s Tale experience starts promisingly when audience members are issued necklace badges instead of tickets to enter, which are examined by a couple of sober, black-clad guards using laser pointers.

When I sat down, I thought “Sicilia” was going to be Sicily, and that its King, Leontes (Chauncey Thomas), would be the Godfather. If so, his near-inexplicable and quite sudden jealous rage about his wife and his closest friend might seem more plausible than it does. You don’t mess with the Don, after all. But, alas, the program describes the Act I setting as “the high-tech corporate world of Seattle.”

When the lights go down, Nancy Lewis emerges in a cool looking black outfit with a long cape that she uses as her “wings,” for she is a self-pronounced raven, a trickster, who provides our spirit guide to introduce and direct us through the play. This character is not Shakespeare’s; rather, it comes from the mythologies of the Tshimsian tribe of Alaska, the community ruled by Leontes childhood friend, Polixenes, where we will journey near the end of the first act and stay until close to the final scenes of the play. Later, she appears with a bear rug over her head to play out the famous “Exit, pursued by a bear” stage direction. Her character is one of the antic touches director Deanna Jent has added to the script, the tone of which has always been problematic due to the abrupt shift from “winter” (Sicilia) to pastoral “summer” (Bohemia). It seems like one minute we’re murdering a baby, and the next, we’re walking on sunshine. Not incidentally, Michael Sullivan’s lighting design is excellent, wherever we might find ourselves.

This adaptation begins with a misstep, I think, by cutting an introductory conversation (in favor of the raven) between two servants of Sicilia and Bohemia about their masters. While these lines don’t justify Leontes’ behavior, at least we’re kind of expecting something may be amiss, since Leontes’ man, Camillo tells Bohemia’s guy that his master can’t be “over-kind” to Polixenes, and at least hints at trouble between them with an appeal to the heavens that the two kings’ relationship should remain cordial. Without even this minor foreshadowing, we are thrust into the most implausible scene of the whole production made more complicated by the fact that if we don’t believe it, then we have trouble becoming invested in the story at all. Further, it’s hard for me to evaluate this production because, honestly, I don’t understand what Jent is after here. There is no credit for dramaturgy, so I assume this script is hers, and it just strikes me as something of a further muddling of an already difficult play.

So, Leontes enters with said friend, Polixenes (Richard Strelinger) who is the “king” of the Native-American Tsimshian tribe in Alaska. The two were boys together, apparently, however unlikely that seems. Leontes is doing the hospitality thing, begging his friend not to leave (though he’s been there nine months) but Polixenes demurs. Leontes is also lovingly attending to his pregnant wife, Hermione (Wendy Greenwood), and their baby son is in a carriage off to the side tended by one of Hermione’s women, Marianne (Zoe Sullivan). His staff (courtiers) are milling about, including Paulina (Kelley Ryan, also a good friend and attendant to the Queen), her husband, Antigonus (B. Weller), Cleomenes (Richard Lewis), Dion (Daniel Lanier), Regina (Sydney Frasure), Emilia (another attendant to Hermione, Julie Venegoni), and the guards played by Daniel Hodges and Jean Lang .

The office set is stark black and white representing Leontes’ mind, perhaps, since he seems incapable of thinking in shades of gray. The set complete with revolving totem pole—computer equipment on one side; Native American artifacts on the other for Bohemia, is rendered by Dunsi Dai. Our only hint of Leontes’ impatience is that he throws up his hands at something he’s seen on the computer, and is apparently in a bad mood by the time he becomes what seems to be temporarily insane.

Polixenes continues to insist that he must get home, but when Hermione importunes him, he says he’ll stay. So, you’d think Leontes would be happy, but instead, he goes ballistic and rages to Camillo (the excellent Charlie Barron) that his wife and friend have betrayed him, the kid’s not his, and he gets really loud. Well, actually he’s been loud all along. Now, this scene has a chance of being credible only if Hermione’s behavior is ambiguous, so the audience can say, “well, yeah, I could see that,” but she isn’t. She appears as devoted as Desdemona, and is falsely judged a whole lot faster. Leontes orders Camillo to poison Polixenes, but the servant can’t bring himself to do it, tells Polixenes about Leontes’ plot and goes back to Alaska with the now-totally-ready to-get-to-the-boat-for-home Polixenes.

Off-stage, Hermione is jailed, delivers a healthy baby girl, loses her son to some sort of malaise and her grief kills her, but not before the Oracle (Nancy Lewis, looking like Zorro but sounding like the Knights Who Says Ni) has proclaimed her innocent of all the charges Leontes has made against her. But it’s too late. Leontes at least sends the child with Antigonus to be exposed rather than dashing her against the rocks or some such, but that didn’t work out well either. Antigonus took the baby all the way to Polixenes’ land, but had that unfortunate encounter with a bear.

Antigonus’ death scene is played comically (I think), and Paulina doesn’t seem to miss her husband much when we get back to Seattle later, though eventually she sighs about being alone and waiting to die (Leontes will have a remedy for that though). The baby is found by a shepherd (Ethan Jones) and brought up as his own child. She has been named “Perdita” (her mother came to Antigonus in a dream and charged him to call the baby “sadness”) and 16 years pass in warm, sun-filled Bohemia where the colors are bright and the peasants are pleasant.

Perdita is in love with Polixenes’ son, Florizel (Adam Moskal, also very loud). This scenario doesn’t suit the King who, with Camillo, goes to the village in disguise and witnesses the sheep shearing festival where there is a lot of dancing and general merriment. Antonio Rodriguez has turned up as the shepherd’s son, and these moments provide welcome comedy, but the dance could certainly be trimmed, since the show is already seeming to drag. I’d have rather heard the Clown’s (Rodriguez) cut scenes than watch all that hopping about.

So, how’s all this going to work out? Well, happily, of course, even more so than in Shakespeare’s original version, thanks in great part to an unexpected addition to Leontes’ redemption and to the wily Paulina, because The Winter’s Tale is not a tragedy. It’s not really a comedy either; it’s generally classified as a “romance” like The Tempest, or even a tragi-comedy. There is some good acting here and some amateurish histrionics, as well because some of the actors are far more proficient at “speaking Shakespeare” than others.

I appreciate their taking some risks, but for me, this production doesn’t attain the level of excellence we’ve come to expect from Mustard Seed. Still, if you’re curious about what Shakespeare was up to late in his career between King Lear and Two Noble Kinsmen, you might want to check it out. The show closes with The Beatles’ “Blackbird,” which when you see it, you will realize what a clever choice that is.

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