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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Winter's Tale

My father named me Autolycus; who being, as I am, littered under Mercury, was likewise a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles. —Autolycus
( left to right) Greg Jackson as the Young Shepherd and Jim Mohr as his father The Old Shepherd
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein )
The obvious affection and attention given to The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's production of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale by its director Brian B. Crowe will undoubtedly make many who consider this one of the Bard's lesser works change their mind. Whether or not it is the best choice for a holiday entertainment is a matter of taste, or if you are inclined toward a more seasonably perverse menu.

The convoluted, preposterous plot, charged as it is with an essentially unmotivated exposition, is presented in a silvery and grey world created by set designer Brian Ruggaber. The action that keeps pace with the tilting and turning stage appears (as confirmed by the richly muted costumes, also mostly silver and grey, designed by Anne Kenney) to suggest the 19th century.

Immersion into the plot isn't all that difficult. Shakespeare pulls his melodramatic hand-grenade early on. To be sure, there is more behavioral idiocy than psychological profundity in the story. Leontes, the king of Sicilia, suddenly goes mad with jealousy because he suspects (for no apparent reason) and then accuses the incontestably pregnant queen Hermione of having had an affair with their house guest, his best friend, the king of Bohemia.

We can only guess (since Shakespeare doesn't make it too clear) that even best friends can overstay their welcome. Paradoxically, after the play's first half in which we see how a distressingly paranoid monarch wittingly slanders, humiliates, alienates, and even destroys most everyone he holds dear, we are treated to a second half all bathed in sweetness and light (with a significant assist from lighting designer Andrew Hungerford) to making everyone live happily ever after.

Not one of Shakespeare's greatest hits, The Winter's Tale makes up for its lack of coherence and cohesiveness in its ability to provoke our continued interest. And certainly its rush of exquisite lyricism is not to be overlooked.

Crowe, whose insightful vision as a director has enhanced productions at this theatre for thirteen seasons, keeps this intriguingly lopsided and fragmented play moving along in a state of bemused wonderment. He adorns the play's fantastical element by the presence of Father Time who hovers over and sometimes controls the action in his silver robe holding an hour-glass scepter.

Crowe also gives this undeniably make-believe world, in which time and tide run amok, a veil of stylish simplicity over an inlay of psychological complexity — a commendable feat. Although it is hard to forgive the Leontes of Robert Gomes for his mindless, impetuous stupidity, the character comes back to haunt us. The difficult-to-swallow redemption of the obviously paranoid Leontes does not preclude our need to evaluate his psychosis in the light of his quivering body, darting eyes, and contemptible behavior. Gomes, who gave a delightful performance at Victor Prynne in last season's Private Lives, makes no attempt to make Leontes worthy of the affection and devotion of his wife or of the court.

The gallantry of Lindsay Smiling, as the maligned Polixenes, is much to be admired. So is Linda Powell's display of patience-in-adversity as that "precious creature" Hermione. Jessica Ires Morris is a burst of feminine fury as Paulina, the court physician and resident loudmouth. Maureen Sebastian, as the long-lost daughter Perdita, and Jonathan Brathwaite, as the a-wooing Prince Florizel impress as the lovesick teens. The small but important role of the king and queen's ill-fated son Mamillius is earnestly played by second-grader Jesse Easterling with a desire to prove that there is no such thing as a small part. Not generally moved to laughter by the antics of Shakespeare's comical characters, I found the cleverly devised clothes swapping of David Foubert, as the roguish Autolycus and Greg Jackson, as the imbecilic young shepherd funny indeed.

With its romantic innocence tainted by macabre undertones and its gorgeous poetry tested by melodramatic excess, The Winter's Tale makes uncompromised appreciation difficult, but Crowe's elegant staging, Paige Blansfield's choreography for the shepherds' festival and the overall excellence of the acting make a case for it as an antidote to the usual holiday entertainment.

The Winter's Tale
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Brian B. Crowe
Cast: Robert Gome, Linda Powell, Jesse Easterling, Maureen Sebastian, Darren Matthias, Jessica Ires Morris, Jonathan Brathwaite, Will Eddy, Greg Jackson, Jim Mohr, CamilleTroy,Kristin Kittel, Jon Barker, JackMoran, Lindsay Smiling, David Foubert,Scott Whitehurst< Set Design: Brian Ruggaber
Costume Design: Anne Kenney
Lighting Designer: Andrew Hungerford
Sound Design: Richard M. Dionne
Choreographer: Paige Blansfield
Running Time: 2 hours 55 minutes including intermission
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (on the campus of Drew University), 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ.
(973) 408 5600
Tickets ($38 - $53)
Performances: Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 PM and Thursday through Saturdays at 8 PM. Saturdays and Sundays at 2 PM and Sundays at 7 PM.
Opened 12/06/08 Ends 12/28/08
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 12/09/08
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