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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

The Winter's Tale
A Mostly Dark Story for the Winter Solstice

The Winter's Tale
Robert Gomes, Jesse Easterling and Linda Powell
Likely one of Shakespeare's last plays, The Winter's Tale is a dark, ghostly story about the terrible woe and suffering unleashed by an absolute ruler in the throes of an irrational, unfounded jealousy.  It has neither the integration of elements nor the psychological depth and insight of the Bard in his prime.  However, it is a good and dark mythological tale for a cold winter night, and is being well told in a beautifully designed production on stage through December at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.

As the curtain rises, Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, is concluding a long visit to the Court of Leontes, the King of Sicily.  These monarchs have been best friends since childhood.  Leontes' wife Hermione is able to cajole Polixenes to extend his visit after Leontes had been unable to do so.  Irrationally, Leontes concludes that his wife and best friend are cuckolding him and orders his lord, Camillo, to poison Polixenes.  Camillo, sure of Polixenes innocence, warns him and they flee Sicily together.  Leontes then orders the pregnant Hermione to prison where she gives birth to a girl.  Her friend Paulina brings his baby to Leontes, convinced that the sight of her will soften his heart.  To the contrary, Leontes stokes his rage with the idea that Polixenes has fathered the baby.  He orders General Antigonus (husband to Paulina) to take the baby to a far-off, desolate and forbidding landscape and abandon her there to the fates and elements.

Leontes' trial of Hermione for treason is interrupted by the arrival of the Oracle from the god Apollo.  His message is that "Hermione is innocent, Polixenes blameless: Camillo, a true subject; Leontes, a jealous tyrant; and the King shall live without an heir (and the ray of hope) if that which is lost be not found."  Still, Leontes is not ready to accept this truth when a messenger reports that his young son Mamillius, who had fallen ill in his grief over his mother's imprisonment, has died.  As Hermione collapses and is carried out, Leontes is jolted back to his senses.  Paulina enters and announces that Hermione has just died.

The scene shifts to the coast of Bohemia where Antigonus reluctantly abandons the royal baby, Perdita.  Before he can return to his ship, Antigonus is attacked and devoured by bears.  A kindly shepherd happens upon the scene and rescues the baby.  End of act three.  Intermission.

These dark events are set on a black set filled with varying arches, a staircase and a large, rotating center stage-angled turntable on which are painted highly stylized white bordered, white and brown, and white and blue leaves.  As the angled turntable rotates, the shifting of its highest point creates added visual interest.  This set by Brian Ruggaber adds to the dark storybook feel of the production.  Particularly effective is the scene in which Leontes observes Polixenes and Hermione after she has gotten him to agree to stay.  Under the assured direction of Brian B. Crowe, Linda Powell (Hermione), Polixenes (Lindsay Smiling) and Leontes (Robert Gomes) move with dance-like movements about the stage as they display behaviors which aid the viewer in better comprehending a basis for Leontes' misguided jealousy not found in the Bard's text.

After intermission (act four), we discover that sixteen years have passed, and that Shakespeare has passed from dark storytelling into broad comic buffoonery.  Although there is a dramatic confrontation at the end of the scene, it proceeds as a comic lark for (best estimate) half an hour.  The scene is Bohemia.  David Foubert and the really sweet Greg Jackson appear as Autolycus and Clown.  I would call them Abbott and Costello without the bitterness. Respectively, a rogue and the old shepherd's good son, they expertly perform an extended, extremely funny Abbott and Costello-style routine during which Autolycus steals Clown's purse and all the clothes that he is wearing.  This is followed by a sheep-shearing celebration complete with dancing and feuding shepherdesses.  Polixenes' son Florizel and the rescued Perdita (her true identity unbeknownst to anyone) have fallen in love.  Polixenes, who has had Florizel followed, arrives with Camillo.  Both are in disguise.  Polixenes reveals himself.  He will not allow his son to marry a peasant. He hurls dire threats at the young lovers.  Florizel is determined to marry Perdita no matter the cost.  Camillo discovers that Perdita is Leontes and Hermione's daughter.  He urges the young lovers to flee to Leontes' court.

Act five, set back in Sicily, has a "happy" and fascinating ending which raises questions of its own.  Director Crowe has done a yeoman job of completing the dark tale by strongly re-establishing the dark storytelling style here.  This is aided in no small part by the device of employing ghostly observers throughout the play as well as at the "resurrection" which provides the climax for The Winter's Tale.

The 17-member cast is very strong throughout.  Jessica Ives Morris brings an impassioned presence to the role of Paulina.   Scott Whitehurst (Camillo) and Darren Matthias (Antigonus) display the determination and heartache needed to maintain honor and dignity in the face of the abuse of the power that they serve.  Jim Mohr (The Good Shepherd), Jonathan Brathwaite (Florizel) and Maureen Sebastian (Perdita) provide solid support in featured roles.

Leontes is not the victim of a conniving rogue, but it is his own failing that brings about his unhappiness.  Although he served the crown, Shakespeare may be expressing a belief that monarchies are inherently abusive.  However, as there is no specific explanation given for Leontes' irrationality, The Winter's Tale lacks the psychological depth of the best works in the canon.  It also falls short in its poetics.  However, when done well, as it is certainly is here, it is a rattling good story with quite a nice divertissement thrown in for good measure.

The Winter's Tale continues performances (Tuesday-Wednesday 7:30 p.m./ Thursday-Saturday 8 p.m./ Saturday-Sunday 2 p.m./ Sunday 7 p.m. -  No perfs. 12/24 & 12/25) through December 28, 2008 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600 , online: www.shakespeareNJ.org.

The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare; directed by Brian B. Crowe

Cast

People of Sicily
Leontes……………………………………..Robert Gomes
Hermione……………………………………..Linda Powell
Mamillius…………………………………Jesse Easterling
Perdita, etc…………………………..Maureen Sebastian
Camillo, etc……………………………..Scott Whitehurst
Antigonus…………………………………Darren Matthias
Paulina………………………………...Jessica Ives Morris
Lord, etc……………………………………………Will Eddy
Emilia, etc.…………………………………….Camille Troy
Cleomenes, etc……………………………….John Barker
Dion, etc…………………………………………Jack Moran

People of Bohemia
Polixenes, etc……………………………..Lindsay Smiling
Florizel, etc………………………….Jonathan Brathwaite
Old Shepherd, etc………………………………...Jim Mohr
Young Shepherd (Clown), etc…………….Greg Jackson
Autolycus, etc.………………………………David Foubert
Mopsa, etc……………………………………..Kristen Kittel


Photo: ©Gerry Goodstein


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- Bob Rendell



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