Rebecca Taichman's Magical Transformation
Also see Bob's review of 100 Saints You Should Know
In The Winter's Tale, William Shakespeare spins a very dark tale of jealousy, death and exile through its first three acts. However, the pastoral setting of most of act four yields a much lighter and brighter continuation of its story replete with romance, mild intrigue, music, and comic relief. Act five concludes with a scene in which a magic realism-like plot device concludes the mission of setting all matters aright. It is a dark and forbidding tale that, after a number of divertissements, concludes its soothing wrap up with a magical, soothing touch to assuage the terrors of a long, dark and winter's night
Director Rebecca Taichman has fearlessly pared down the play by eliminating supporting roles, and making elisions in the text which include the rendering of key scenes through brief narrations spoken in one sentence segments by each of the actors who are seated in a row downstage.
At the outset, the setting is the Court of Leontes, King of Sicily, where Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, is concluding a long visit. Failing to persuade Polixenes, his friend since childhood, to extend his stay, Leontes urges his wife Hermione to try to do so. Only because her entreaties are a success, Leontes is certain that his friend and wife are cuckolding him. He orders his lord, Camillo, to poison Polixenes. Unable to dissuade Leontes and certain of Polixenes' innocence, Camillo warns Polixenes, and they flee Sicily together. Leontes throws the pregnant Hermione into prison where she gives birth to a girl. Her friend Paulina brings the baby to Leontes in the hope of changing his heart, but this only stokes his rage as he believes that Polixenes fathered the child. Leontes orders his general, Antigonus to remove the baby to a far away, desolate place, and abandon her to the fates and elements.
Hermione is placed on trial for treason by Leontes. The Oracle from the god Apollo arrives with the message that "Hermione is innocent, Polixenes blameless, Camillo, a true subject, Leontes, a jealous tyrant." Leontes will not accept this. Word arrives that his son, Mamillius, ill with grief over his mother's imprisonment, has died. Hermione collapses at this news. Subsequently, Paulina announces that Hermione has died. Too late, these tragedies bring Leontes to his senses.
The final scene of act three (leading to the single intermission) shifts the scene to coast of Bohemia where Antigonus abandons Hermione's baby, Perdita (before he is attacked and devoured by bears). Perdita, bedecked with jewels and gold, is rescued by a Young Shepherd (designated as "Clown") and his father.
Except for this final scene, most of men are costumed in vaguely modern black suits, white shirts, and black ties (Camillo is dressed in grey, likely denoting his lesser status). The women are dressed in black (Hermione has a touch of red and orange at the top of her bodice). At the opening, eight of the nine actors are seated in a row of black and white chairs in front of a red curtain narrating events. The royal red curtain behind them is raised after a few brief minutes (not to return until the end of the play). When it rises, we view the basic set. It is a grey back wall with two fancy french doors. I would think that the colorless sets and costumes reflect the austere mood of these scenes and life at Leontes' court.
Starting with the costumes for final scene of act three, and through much of act three, this production takes on a bright and colorfully "rustic" visual look that strongly sets the mood for the romp, which occupies much of the stage time after the intermission. A very large canvas of a lush, green hilly field is placed against that grey back wall. Actors carry giant colorful cut out butterflies on poles, there is a standing cutout of sheep, green neon lights light up and color that back wall, colorful costumes abound, and the lighting is brought up to a very bright level. These visual elements make a significant contribution to the joy spread by the humor, romance, and song and dance (at a sheep shearing fair) that they accompany. There is a live three-piece orchestra on stage.
Much of act five (back at Leontes' court) is summed up in narration fashion preceding that scene of magic realism set in a chapel of a deserted house. An inherently interesting, oddly charming scene, it is rendered magical by the visually stunning manner in which it is staged.
Director Rebecca Taichman has been magnificently abetted by her set designer Christine Jones, costume designer David Zinn, and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind. Akerlind's lighting is absolutely stunning. The sound design (Matt Tierney) is particularly excellent. It is the best that I have heard at McCarter's Matthews Theatre in recent memory.
The nine featured actors play all of the roles in the play, including "Lords, Servants, and others." Mark Harelik displays powerful command of the stage as the irrationally and cruelly jealous Leontes. Harelik shows great versatility with a fine comic portrayal of Autolycus, a thieving rogue. Harelik, Hannah Yelland (Hermione), Sean Arbuckle (Polixenes), Brent Carver (Camillo), Nancy Robinette (Paulina), Ted van Griethuysen (Antigonus, Old Shepherd), Tom Story (Clown), Heather Wood (Perdita, Mamillius), and Todd Bartels (Florizel, son of Polixenes) comprise an excellent, fluid ensemble. How delightful it is when, as a royal suitor to a seemingly mere shepherd's daughter, Florizel is warned that his father will deny him his inheritance, and he responds, "As to my inheritance, I am heir to my affection".
The spotlight must be shone on director Rebecca Taichman. She has cut, pasted, and, at the least, redeployed Shakespeare's own words. Her staging is staggeringly complex and inventive. The result of her efforts is a visually stunning, dramatically involving, delightfully entertaining, and totally coherent production.
As there is no explanation for Leontes' irrationality, The Winter's Tale lacks the psychological depth of the best of Shakespeare. However, Taichman's production progresses through the shifting tones of this late work of Shakespeare in a brilliantly realized production which makes a solid case for the Bard in his own winter.
The Winter's Tale continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday 7:30 pm; Friday, Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees: Saturday 3 pm; Sunday 2 pm) through April 21, 2013, at the McCarter Theatre Center (Matthews Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton 08540. Box Office: 609-258-2787; online: www.mccarter.org .
The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare; directed by Rebecca Taichman