The Winter's Tale
The Winter's Tale remains a problematic story for most audiences today. The cultural differences between Elizabethan England and the theatergoing world of today make this one of Shakespeare's most rarely produced plays. In a curtain speech, Charles Fee, producing artistic director of Great Lakes Theater, asked how many in the audience had never seen The Winter's Tale. Most of the audience members, including me, raised a hand.
The Winter's Tale is considered one of Shakespeare's problem plays. First published in 1623, the play opens with psychological problems and moves to comic scenes and closes with an Elizabethan happy ending.
The story opens with Leontes, King of Sicilia, begging his friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia, to visit with him longer. Hermione, Queen to Leontes, takes up her husband's request, links arms with Polixenes and takes him for a walk in the garden. Hermione is pregnant. Leontes becomes enraged with jealousy and insists Hermione is pregnant with Polixenes' child. Leontes orders his friend be killed and his wife placed in prison. In prison, the Queen immediately gives birth to a girl child, Perdita. The King orders the baby be taken to a mountain where a bear might kill the child. Mamillius, the son of the Leontes and Hermione, dies because of the stress in his home. Polixenes escapes to Bohemia. A shepherd takes the baby and raises it as his own.
Sixteen years pass between sections of the play, and Shakespeare moves the script to the comedic parts and the improbable yet happy ending. After sixteen years in self-imposed exile, Hermione returns, kisses Leontes and forgives him for all of the pain he has caused her and their family, including the death of their son.
Unfortunately, the script causes problems for Jesse Berger (director), as it is played with little variation. The performance should build and recede, build and recede until the final climatic moments. It instead has a flatness without emotional peaks and valleys. In his opening scene, King Leontes (David Anthony Smith) goes into a rage that leaves him no room to expand emotionally or physically.
Smith is a talented actor whose work I've enjoyed over the years. However, he doesn't live up to his potential in this performance. I suspect the problem is the director's.
Paulina (Laurie Birmingham), the wife of a courtier and the Queen's friend, provides emotional variety and strength. Birmingham is a talented, skilled actress who understands the demands of playing Shakespeare.
In the middle of the play, the low characters (shepherds and rustics) should bring comedy to the show. That doesn't happen. Those playing the low characters seem to have read the first part of the script and want to continue the emotionally heavy parts.
I was seated on the second row and couldn't hear some of the lines. One of the basics of acting is to speak loud enough for everyone to hear every syllable.
Sara Jean Tosetti (costume designer) has dressed the cast in a mish-mash of historic costumes (maybe some parts are contemporary). However, the lack of consistency adds to the confusion on the stage.
In summary, The Winter's Tale is a disappointment because of the script, the directing, the inconsistency in the acting and the costumes.
The Great Lakes Theater, Cleveland, Ohio, will continue The Winter's Tale through November 4, 2012, in repertory with The Imaginary Invalid. For performance and ticket information, visit www.greatlakestheater.org/.
- David Ritchey