To commemorate the lovely productions from this season, I’m going to be documenting my thoughts for each of the shows (hopefully). Here is the first:
In staging William Shakespeare’s genre-defying play The Winter’s Tale, companies face three main obstacles: the bear, the time, and the statue. If the production successfully addresses those problems with a coherent and committed cast, the production flourishes. Luckily for audiences at the American Shakespeare Center, guest director Jenny Bennett crafted a heartwarming and heartbreaking fairy-tale, that barely flinched at the imposing challenges.
The production made no apologies for the absurdity. The bear appeared throughout the play, as actors took advantage of the language to pun and allude to the ursine stage direction. Likewise, during Time’s speech before the second half of the show, the actors gathered on the balcony and added sound-effects to indicate the passage of time and that they realized the silliness of the temporal jump. Finally, aside from the music the text requires, nothing accompanied the statue but the narration provided by Paulina. True to the style of the ASC–there were no gimmicks, no tricks, but just the actors and the text.
This simplicity carried into conventional and sparse choices for costumes and sets, allowing the performance of the text to engross the audience. The design told audiences what they needed to know–who people were and where they were–and no more. For those used to the dazzle of Broadway, the simplicity might be jarring, but for this company, this production, and this theater, it works.
Turning to the performances, this small cast fills the stage and the characters, even when playing multiple parts. One of the most delightful moments for the evening was seeing Sarah Fallon and Abbi Hawk, who play Paulina and Hermione, transform into the country bumpkin romantic rivals Mopsa and Dorcas.
Each actor and character presents similar transformations. When Polixenes (René Thornton Jr.) dresses as a shepherd; when Stephanie Earl plays Mamillius and Perdita; when Camillo (Gregory Phelps) forgives Leontes (James Keegan); when country shepherds (Chris Johnston and Allison Glenzer) become courtiers–the list is endless.
Beyond the individual performances, the ensemble crafts striking collective images within the play, most notably in the opening scene. As Leontes observes his wife with his brother, everyone else on stage turns to individual conversations, creating a close up on the jealous king. It is a small moment, and almost unnoticeable, but moments like these elevate a play from proficient to powerful.
The contrast of the regal, honorable, and wronged with the clownish, absurd, and endearing threatens to overwhelm or to confuse, but this play, and this production, relishes in the contradictions and contrasts, thrusting audiences from tragedy to comedy to romance with unrepentant abandon. The result is what the title of the play promises: a fairy-tale full of transformation, darkness, true love, and redemption.