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The Winter's Tale

Watching the Cat's Cradle Unravel

American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Virginia
Saturday, May 11, 2019, C–8&9 (center stalls)
Directed by Kevin Rich

In repertoire with 16 Winters, or The Bear's Tale

Antigonus has just exited with the newborn daughter of Leontes and Hermione, king and queen of Sicily in William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Leontes believes with zero evidence that his best friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia, is the baby's father and has imprisoned his wife and intended to outright kill the kid. When court counselor Antigonus intervenes, Leontes orders him to abandon the baby in some wilderness. “Blessing against this cruelty fight on thy side, poor thing, condemn'd to loss!” Antigonus (Michael Hahalyak) says to the baby as he carries her out.

Production photo by Marek K. Photography of the bear sniffing at the blanketed baby with Antigonus on the right side waving his arms.
The Bear sniffs at the baby before pursuing Antigonus (Michael Hahalyak, far right) off the Blackfriars Playhouse stage in the American Shakespeare Center's production of William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Photo by Marek K. Photography, American Shakespeare Center.

Leontes softens in Ronald Román-Meléndez's interpretation of the role in the American Shakespeare Center's production at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia. He appears to be reconsidering his edict and, perhaps, all of his actions that have brought him to this point. He glances around the theater's audience, pausing on faces and steeling his resolve as he does so. “No, I'll not rear another's issue,” he says, a conviction he seems to draw from us. We have become complicit in the still unfolding tragedy.

It's an epitome Blackfriars moment crafted by Román-Meléndez and Kevin Rich, director of this Winter's Tale. The American Shakespeare Center's touring troupe, returning home for the playhouse's spring season, presents a deeply moving, elegiac version of Shakespeare's late romance, meditative in nature yet warmly comical, even at its most tragic point. When the aforementioned Antigonus deposits the baby on the shores of Bohemia, a real-looking grizzly bear appears and sniffs at the basket. Antigonus claps his hands to distract the bear, which turns, rises to Kodiak height, and exits pursuing Antigonus. After some commotion back stage, Hahalyak crawls through the curtain at the back of the stage but only gets halfway out. “I am gone forever!” he yells and is dragged out from behind. This gets a laugh, and why not? Shakespeare's canon is replete with tragicomical moments, and this particular one has become a Shakesgeek meme. Still, such tightrope moments require deft talent and textual understanding to achieve.

And this is a heckuva talented troupe of actors: talented in verse-speaking skills, character-development intelligence, physical capacities, musicianship, and handling Shakespeare's original staging conditions, which includes universal lighting, no sets and few props, no electronic or digital effects, and audience members in close proximity, some even sitting on “gallant stools” right on the stage. The Winter's Tale is the second in a triple crown of artistic triumphs on this Mother's Day weekend of Shakespeare and semi-Shakespeare theater, including a delightful romp through a Comedy of Errors and a sharply acted world-premiere opening of Mary Elizabeth Hamilton's 16 Winters, or The Bear's Tale. (The troupe also is performing Sophocles' Antigone, which we didn't see this weekend.)

16 Winters, or The Bear's Tale is the Blackfriars second Shakespeare's New Contemporaries production, the American Shakespeare Center's initiative to solicit modern plays “in conversation with” specific Shakespeare titles. Obviously, Hamilton's play pairs with The Winter's Tale, and in this particular instance, the conversation is enticingly rich. I considered combining reviews of the two productions but decided each deserves its individual due; nevertheless, the two reviews, as with the plays, work in tandem.

Most striking is how the two plays seem to inform each other; not only The Winter's Tale inspiring Hamilton's play, but also 16 Winters, or The Bear's Tale possibly inspiring the actors' interpretations of their characters in Shakespeare's play. This is no easy thing to determine without talking to company members (I didn't have that chance, even on the new play's world premiere weekend), but I had the perspective of seeing Hamilton's play as the matinee show and Shakespeare's as the nightcap. In 16 Winters, the Hermione character, played by Ally Farzetta, and the Bohemian king (Kenn Hopkins Jr.) confess a mutual attraction beneath their entirely proper behavior toward each other, and Román-Meléndez's Sicilian king grapples with his uncertain certainty in succumbing to a jealous fit and the double tragedy of losing his son and wife. Those character explorations in 16 Winters to me underlie the actors' readings of their Winter's Tale characters.

Nevertheless, the distinction of this Winter's Tale is Rich's keen understanding of the Blackfriars' space and playing conditions. Rich, a professional actor, director, and former artistic director of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, is now on the theater faculty at the University of Colorado in Boulder and specializes in Shakespeare's staging conditions. Last summer he served as the actor manager of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's original practices production of Edward III and previously directed an American Shakespeare Center touring production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.

“All of [Shakespeare's] late plays are weird blends of drama, farce, and fairy tale and challenge us to empathize with some extreme behavior,” Rich writes in his program notes. Rich tackles the challenge by perfectly marrying text to space. I've long noted how the Blackfriars environment makes Shakespeare's plays more viscerally thrilling as well as more engaging. With Rich's Winter's Tale, I see psychosocial dynamics at work in the proximity of audience to actor and the actors' direct address techniques. Just as Richard III, Iago, and Hamlet can get us on their sides, Leontes manages to tug empathy from us even as his unfounded fit of jealousy leads to tyranny toward his wife, child, and court. It's easy to dismiss him as abusively crazy, but by Román-Meléndez directly sharing Leontes' thought processes with us and expressing the raw emotions and hurt he's feeling, he enlists us in the role of caring friend, softening our condemnation of him through the play's first half and engendering our sympathy when catastrophe falls. After the plot returns to Sicily for the final scenes, we are friends with Leontes, sharing in his own great loss.

Rich writes that The Winter's Tale portrays “the double-edged sword of a strong imagination.” His staging of the opening scenes identifies the ingredients that, piece by piece, feed the jealousy that will consume Leontes. With Jessica Van Essen's costume designs providing a Renaissance fairy tale look, the cast segues from preshow music to play as Farzetta's Hermione and Román-Meléndez's Leontes dance during the cast's performance of Amy Winehouse's “Love Is a Losing Game.” After a few turns, Hermione crosses to dance with Polixenes, and Leontes steps to the back of the stage to watch. His agitation begins here, even before the play begins with Sicilian lord Camillo (Andrew Tung) and Bohemian lord Archidamus (Madeline Calais) discussing Sicily's future reciprocal visit to Bohemia. Leontes' insecurity is present in Román-Meléndez's demeanor, peeved as he is at Hermione changing dance partners midsong. In such a state, watching the innocent but intimate interactions of attractive wife and best friend can fuel jealousy like dry underbrush to a wildfire.

Whatever attraction she might have for Polixenes and the charm she employs to convince Bohemia to extend his visit (as her husband requested of her), Hermione's heart obviously belongs to Leontes. A slight but wonderfully apt textual interpolation comes when Leontes, bothered that she doesn't remember the one time she “spokest to better purpose,” tells her, “Why, that was when three crabbed months had sour'd themselves to death, ere I could make thee open thy white hand and clap thyself my love: then didst thou utter 'I am yours forever.'” Farzetta, dreamily taking this in, joins him in saying “yours forever.”

Perceptions diverge from this point, Leontes into his jealousy and conspiracy, the rest of the court seeing nothing amiss. Hermione and Polixenes are concerned that something is bothering Leontes, but he genially sends them off. “If you would seek us, we are yours i' the garden: shall's attend you there?” Hermione asks. “To your own bents dispose you,” Leontes responds: “You'll be found, be you beneath the sky,” Román-Meléndez eyeing Hermione knowingly before turning to the gallant stools and saying, “I am angling now.” Farzetta's Hermione looks puzzled at her husband's weird expression, dismisses it as Leontes being Leontes and exits with Polixenes. Leontes now fully engages with the audience, pointing out what he thinks is obvious sexual behavior, then decries how quickly Hermione and Polixenes left, though it was at his bidding.

By his working through his concerns in confidence with the audience, we don't necessarily catch on to how diminished his logic has become. When he reveals the alleged affair to Camillo, Tung looks to us with a WTF expression. Camillo agrees to poison Polixenes. “I must believe you, sir,” he tells Leontes, then realizes that's not convincing enough for the king: “I do; and will fetch off Bohemia for't.” He's buying time, time he uses to warn Polixenes and flee with him. Polixenes might feel attraction for Hermione, but it's textually clear he never harbors the thought of crossing that line and knows he must flee himself. “This jealousy is for a precious creature: as she's rare, must it be great, and as his person's mighty, must it be violent,” he says. That Shakespeare could so seamlessly juxtapose insightful logic with obvious phantasm and yet keep us engaged with the wronging person is a product of his intimate, soul-bearing presentation of Leontes.

This dichotic psychopathy continues through the queen's trial. Farzetta's Hermione stands up fiercely to Leontes' accusation, fitting a woman who claims she is “not prone to weeping.” He responds by retreating further into his psychosis. “You, my lord, do but mistake,” Hermione says, Farzetta speaking in a respectful, loving voice though he's just called her an adulteress. “You have mistook, my lady,” Leontes says, Román-Meléndez speaking the last words with intended bile. During the trial, Román-Meléndez's Leontes sits with his back to Hermione as she defends herself with firm, pointed logic and states the obvious: “Sir, you speak a language that I understand not.” In frustration she breaks down with a heart-rending wail: “My life stands in the level of your dreams, which I'll lay down.”

“Your actions are my dreams; you had a bastard by Polixenes, and I but dream'd it,” Román-Meléndez roars, exploding into a rant that reveals how much his imagination has forged his way, laying bare the tyrant he's become. His confidence in his perception is so strong he defies Apollo's oracle (the one blemish in this production: the oracle is delivered with multiple voices to create an echo effect that ends up garbling its riddle). Only the sudden death of his son and his wife fainting and being taken off stage shock Leontes out of his delusion: we yet need our own shock moment. As Paulina (Annabelle Rollison) delivers the news of Hermione's death, she uses a rhetorical elevation of woe as a means of dealing with her own progression of disbelief, tracing how we got to where we are, step by step by step by step. Such is the progression of tyranny, reaching a point when, though we watch every step along the way, we ask ourselves, how'd we get here?

Production photo by Marek K. Photography of Hermione on a black marble like platform looking at Leontes, back to her, while the court watches in the background.

Production photo by Marek K. Photography of Hermione kissing the kneeling Leontes
From tyranny to redemption in The Winter's Tale at the Blackfriars Playhous: Top, Leontes (Ronald Román-Meléndez, left) listens with disdain as Hermione (Ally Farzetta) pleads her case while Paulina (Annabelle Rollison, right) and a lord (Madeline Calais) watch. Above, Hermione forgives Leontes 16 years later. Photos by Marek K. Photography.

Rollison takes Paulina on an arc new to me, but one textually driven. In reaching out to Leontes with "Good my liege, I come; And, I beseech you, hear me, who profess myself your loyal servant, your physician, your most obedient counsellor,” Rollison's Paulina, cradles him in consolation. They seem to have an intimate relationship even more physical than what we've seen between Hermione and Polixenes. However, when Paulina says she comes “from your good queen,” Leontes recoils. “Good queen!” he rejoins, and in their ensuing fireworks, Román-Meléndez rebuffs her touch, leaving the theater audience as his only confidants.

As effective as her rhetorical power in announcing Hermione's death, it exemplifies a Paulina who tends to babble and come off as insensitive when the plot returns to Sicily after its Bohemia sojourn. She even seems to make light of Florizel (Josh Clark), Polixenes' son, showing up at the court with a supposed princess bride. The blocking is such that Paulina doesn't get a clear view of Perdita (Constance Swain) until well into the conversation, and then she stares intently at her. Paulina occupies an enviable place of power by this point in her obvious relationship to the king (essentially a proxy queen) and in the secret she's been keeping for 16 years. With Perdita's arrival, Rollison's Paulina knows her power play has reached its conclusion.

Hermione's statue also represents a first in my experience of this play: Farzetta is sitting, not standing or holding her arms outstretched. That takes the pressure off the actress, and the audience, too, watching for movement. Thus the focus is totally on the emotions bouncing around the room, especially emanating from Román-Meléndez's Leontes. When Hermione rises, Leontes kneels to her and holds out his hand. She takes it and kisses him long and passionately, an act of forgiveness for Leontes and redemption for us, too.

The transition from Sicily to Bohemia comes with a flute playing out Leontes and Paulina exiting to view the bodies of the queen and prince. The flute gives way to Topher Embrey playing the ukulele, entering through the audience singing “You Are My Sunshine.” He plays the Shepherd's Son, and though the storm chases him off the stage followed by the entrance of Antigonus with the baby Perdita, the play's tone has fully shifted into comedy (including Antigonus being pursued and eaten by a bear). The Bohemian scenes don't quite engage as fully as the Sicilian scenes do, though one of the production's best-delivered jokes is an atextual poke at Shakespeare's bad math. Rollison plays Time, sitting in the balcony knitting a scarf that unfurls to the floor as she announces the skipping of 16 years in the plot. She's still sitting up there when Camillo complains to Polixenes that “It is fifteen years since I saw my country,” a bit uncertain on the number and glancing up at Time. “Sixteen,” Time corrects him.

The production kicks back into dramatic gear when it returns to Sicily: Florizel and Perdita show up, the gossips (standing amid the audience) recount the reunion of father to daughter, friend to friend, and royal real fathers to shepherd stepfather. Then, we get Embrey doing a hilarious schtick as a “gentleman born” before we move on to Paulina's gallery and Hermione's statue.

The sense of lost time in this scene is not just of Leontes, but of Swain's Perdita. Swain plays both of the Sicilian royal children, son Mamillius in the play's first half and daughter Perdita in the second half. She's a worldly-wise Perdita and something cynical for a girl raised in the country. When the disguised Polixenes describes how “when I was young,” Perdita lets escape a “Hah!” in response. Florizel slaps her foot in a “behave!” gesture. Swain also is a spirited Mamillius, always wanting to play, ready to fight, eager to grow up. When left alone, she's making a cat's cradle.

Mamillius, of course, doesn't grow up. That's a loss Leontes can never recover. Which is matter to be explored in 16 Winters, or The Bear's Tale.

Eric Minton
June 8, 2019

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