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The Winter's Tale
Vortex Theatre


John Byrom and Myles Frederick Allen
The Winter's Tale is often considered one of Shakespeare's "problem" plays. The word "problem" is itself a problem. What exactly does it mean?

It might mean that there is a moral problem that is not worked out to the audience's satisfaction, but I don't think that's the case with this play. Or, the problem might be one of categorization: is it one of the tragedies or one of the comedies? In this regard, The Winter's Tale is impossible to pigeonhole: It's two ... two .. two plays in one. The first half is a straight drama (you might call it a tragedy, in that the king Leontes is overwhelmed by jealousy and both he and his family are punished for his rashness and hubris) while the second half, which takes place sixteen years later, is mostly comical and has a happy ending. The contrast is unusual, and I'm still not sure if this play is something that Shakespeare sort of slapped together, or an experimental avant garde work of genius, but I'm leaning toward the latter.

Then again, maybe the problem is one of staging. For example, this is the play with the most famous stage direction in theater history: "Exit, pursued by a bear." How do you pull that off without it looking ridiculous? (In this production, no bear appears, which is a wise move, but the problem of how to stage this scene is still not effectively solved.)

Another problem in The Winter's Tale is that what should be two of the most emotional scenes of the play—the recognition scene between Leontes and his long-lost daughter Perdita, and the reconciliation scene between Leontes and his childhood friend Polixenes, whom Leontes had accused of adultery with his wife sixteen years earlier—are not even acted out. They could be the stuff of opera, but here they are simply related second-hand by three gentlemen. How do you stage that? Here it was done as a sort of voice-over by something like a Greek chorus—not totally satisfactory, but that isn't the director's fault, it's a problem with the play. Why Shakespeare chose to write it that way, I don't know. It might be his attempt to imitate the ancient Greek style of theater, in which important events often happen off-stage and are then related to us by a messenger or chorus. If that's so, then this production's use of a chorus is indeed appropriate.

The director, Paul Ford, has put considerable thought into this staging. He opens the play with a preface taken from Shakespeare's source material, a story by Robert Greene called "Pandosto," which was published about twenty years before A Winter's Tale was written. The preface is a pithy little essay on jealousy, and it leads us directly into the action at the court of Leontes in Sicily, where jealousy soon conquers the king, no Iago needed. The play has been judiciously cut, so that it doesn't seem as if anything is missing, and the action moves swiftly. This is one of the Shakespeare plays in which the plot and language are simple enough to follow without any study beforehand.

The setting (by John van der Meer and Lydia Lopez) and costumes (by Robyn Schlegel and Juanita Marken) are from classical times, as they pretty much have to be considering the importance of the oracle of Apollo in the script. The first half is not exactly bleak, but not colorful either, since "A sad tale's best for winter," as the ill-fated young prince Mamillius says (played by the very young and very adorable Myles Frederick Allen, a total scene-stealer). After intermission, the stage is decked out with flowers and everything is brighter, since Time has taken us not only across sixteen years but also from winter to spring. (Time itself has a speaking role in this play.)

There are 24 people in the cast, a few more than need be, but that's OK because young actors need to get their time on the stage. John Byrom is effective as Leontes, but he could have been more fearsome in his jealous rages. Arlette Morgan as his wife, Hermione, is wonderful, credibly depicting her disorientation at her husband's unexpected change of personality. Brennan Foster, as Polixenes, the king of Bohemia, is handsome enough to make it clear why Leontes would suspect him of adultery with Hermione (it's the problem of having a best friend better-looking than you are), and he was very believable in the second half when he gets mad at his son Florizel for courting a shepherd's daughter instead of a noblewoman. Jason Witter does a good job as Camillo, who helps Polixenes escape from Sicily and has to wait sixteen years before he can get back to his homeland.

Among the purely comic characters, Ray Orley as the shepherd is his reliable self, dithery and always amusing. Brian Haney as his son (called simply Clown) is certainly animated, but unfortunately for him, had to share the stage with the Autolycus of Ed Chavez, Albuquerque's own Robin Williams. Ed Chavez does manic as well as anybody can, and he has the gift of making you think that he's making up his lines on the spot instead of remembering them.

Stephanie Grilo is fine as Perdita (the "lost" princess), but her paramour Florizel is the only actor I found disappointing. Devon Hoffman plays him with vocal mannerisms, movements, and arm gestures I can best describe as corny.

Acting honors go to Jim Hisler and Kathy Mille Wimmer. Hisler is a fine Antigonus, who, before he gets eaten by the bear, displays exactly the gravitas that the role requires. Wimmer is passionate as Paulina, the woman who protects Hermione and who can castigate Leontes and get away with it—even the king doesn't want to tangle with her. Paul Ford also gives Wimmer the preface, the role of Time, and the chorus parts. She handles them well, but I would have preferred to have some other character take these roles. Paulina is so much a part of the action that I don't see why she should be the narrator as well.

All in all, this Winter's Tale, even though in the middle of summer, is a fine evening at the theater, and the more I think about it, the more I realize what a really good play it is. Thanks to Paul Ford and his cast and crew for the enlightenment.

The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare was performed at the Vortex Theatre in Albuquerque from July 19 to August 5, 2012.

--Dean Yannias


Photo: Paul Ford



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