Theatre Reviews
Photo by Danny Reise courtesy of Washington University

Shakespeare doesn’t fall easily into genres.  The tragedies, yes, are “Tragedies”;  some comedies are just “Comedies”(high or low);  the histories are at least partly “Histories”.   But then there are the weird things:  What the heck is Cymbaline?  Is The Tempest just a “Romance”?  And how about "The Winter’s Tale"?  It’s usually called a “Romance”, not a “Problem Play”—although there is a very large problem with it.

Washington University has opened a fine production of "The Winter’s Tale."  It’s directed by Prof. William Whitaker, with an all-student cast.

This is a rather intimate staging of the story.  The audience is seated on the stage itself, on three sides of the playing area.  The setting, designed by Prof. Robert Mark Morgan is beautiful indeed—simple and flexible.  A circle of classical columns (some mere fragments); a wonderful floor with gorgeous whorls of dark color—like marble—like hints of antique maps.  And behind it all, a vast and glorious sea-and-cloud-scape that will receive all the proper hues to reflect time and mood.

King Leontes of Sicilia, utterly without reason, is passionately convinced that his innocent wife, Hermione, is having an affair with his best friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia, and that the baby she carries was fathered by Polixines.

In his jealous rage Leontes causes his wife’s “death”, his infant daughter’s abandonment on a foreign shore, and the exile of his most faithful courtier, Camillo.  Leontes’ baseless jealousy is that large problem that cripples our ability to believe this story.  

But this is a “winter’s tale”, and, as Leontes’ young son says, “a sad tale’s best for winter”.  A sad tale it is—a tale of death and banishment and of the pointless shattering of bonds of love.  And this play, at heart, is an allegory.  So it’s best treated as a folk tale.  It is, if you will, a retelling of the myth of Persephone.

In the first half of the evening Leontes rules over a black-clad court.  Here love dies, friendship dies, people die—just as Winter itself appears to kill all the beauties of Nature.

For no apparent reason.

Quick now, to a shore in Bohemia, where good Antigonus has brought the royal baby.  In Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction Antigonus “exits pursued by a bear”.  This bear is stylized but quite acceptably shaggy, shambly, and ferocious.

In the second half we find ourselves still in Bohemia—now a lovely pastoral setting.  The abandoned royal baby has been found and raised by a shepherd (as in any good fairy tale).  She is now beautiful, bright, and sixteen.  She’s called Perdita (“lost one”).  And she’s in love with King Polixenes’ son, Florizel.  

We meet one of Shakespeare’s most colorful and lyrical comic characters—the peddler and pick-pocket Autolycus.  (Shakespeare stole him from Ovid who stole him from Homer.)  And we’re treated to pastoral dancing and singing.   Spring!  The world is in bloom—and so is Love.

When Polixenes finds that his heir apparent is in love with a mere shepherdess he shows that he can be just as tyrannical as Leontes.    But then Perdita’s secret is revealed.

We all return to Sicilia, where the penitent Leontes rejoices at the arrival of his lost daughter and the revival of his friendship with Polixenes.  In a final coup de theatre the wise Paulina brings everyone to view a new statue of the late queen Hermione.  When it is revealed Leontes marvels at its perfection.  When he touches it this cold marble magically returns to warm, breathing life!

The cast is strong, and all display excellent diction.  Among so manyt let me just mention a few who impressed me most.  Actors, in Shakespeare, can recite the lines or they can own them—i.e., truly understand the words and convince us that they spring naturally from the mind of the character—with lifelike rhythm, emphases, and pauses.  Some in the cast who truly own their lines include:  Hope McKinney (Paulina), who glows with quiet authority; Ella Sherlock (Hermione) whose defense testimony is quite beautiful; Heather Elaine Anderson who convinces us of Camillo’s earnest good faith;  Owen Farra (Antigonus), who wields his strong clear voice most thoughtfully.  Eliza Rocks as the adopted brother of Perdita tells a lively tale and has such comic confidence in her scenes with Autolycus.  

Now the best role in the play, theatrically, is Autolycus.  Zachary Nowacek absolutely nails it.  This is one deeply talented young man.  Long-limbed, yet agile and quick, he has the perfect face for this role:  a broad smile that can quickly change from goofy to sly, a merry up-tipped nose.  He could be one of Bruegel’s roistering peasants.  And he can deliver those lyrical ballads like a real troubadour.  

It's a rich and beautiful production, but with some small (and some large) problems.  Why does the boy prince have a Godzilla toy?  Why, in this fairy tale, does he “high-five” his father?  But much more seriously, after some lovely period music, why does the shepherds’ wedding celebration suddenly crash into loud, blaring, stomping rock?  With sweeping disco lights, honking saxophones, and wildly gyrating dancers this utterly shatters any sense of Bohemia (or Illyria or wherever).  The delicate, pastoral, idyllic fairy-tale world is destroyed.

Ah, well.  It’s still overall a good production, and I thank Wash U .for bringing us this strange but beautiful piece. Performances run through Sunday, March 3, at the Edison Theatre on the Washington University Campus.

P.S. I highly recommend for your reading Bill Whitaker’s excellent article on the play .

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