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A CurtainUp Review
The Winter's Tale
Bohemia never existed as such during classical times, and had no seacoast as the play claims. The jaw-dropping coincidences and sometimes ridiculous events (like that described in one of the most famous stage directions in theater: Exit, pursued by a bear) in the plot strain credulity to the breaking point; and the severe change in tone from the relentless darkness of Sicilia to the light-hearted fancy of Bohemia have led some to suggest that Shakespeare's powers were waning when he reached this work.
But I've always rejected this notion, and I admit I'm not apologetic about it. Having acted in the play as an undergraduate and taught it for many years, I've always been drawn to its mix of darkness and whimsy, its sense of magic and wonder. . .and, perhaps ever more strongly as my own daughter has grown older, its focus on fathers, mothers, and daughters. So when the chance came to review its latest iteration, this time with a theater company in the Pearl that seldom takes a wrong step when it comes to classic theater, I jumped at it, and was happy to witness a (qualified) success.
In my view, the biggest challenge in producing The Winter's Tale relates to the almost bipolar change in tone. On a larger level, the first half of the play, tracing Sicilian King Leontes' (Peter Francis James) insane and violently unpredictable suspicions of his wife Hermione's (Jolly Abraham) infidelity with Bohemian King Polixenes (Bradford Cover), concluding with death, madness and overwhelming grief, is as tragically charged as anything Shakespeare ever wrote. On the character level, Leontes himself is so obviously insane and tyrannical in his demands for punishment and vengeance that he invites contempt and scorn.
Yet this is a tragicomedy, and in the second half of the work Shakespeare somehow had to pull both the overall play and the audience's opinion of its protagonist back from the brink so that the final reconciliation seems satisfying and not a cop-out. Paulina (Rachel Botchan) says towards the end of the play that "it is required / You do awake your faith." In truth, the audience has had to do so a long time before.
The good news is that the Pearl, with its consistently disciplined approach to the classics, is probably the perfect company to pull all of this off. Director Michael Sexton makes a number of right calls. He doesn't allow the play's radical tonal shift to overwhelm its characters' development and resists the urge to treat William Shakespeare like Mel Brooks (productions which take the "bear stage direction" and run with it usually don't end well). And he's aided in the task by excellent sound, costume and set design, especially in Sicilia.
As usual for the Pearl, the acting is with good performances put in by all concerned and especially strong turns from Autolycus's Steve Cuiffo, James and Botchan. The highest acting praise has to go to Abraham, whose Hermione is the perfect balance of vitality, strength and compassion towards her increasingly unhinged husband; hers is an exceptional rendition of one of Shakespeare's most memorable queens.
So the news is good, but not entirely so. Several odd decisions — like casting Mamillius and his attendant as the same person, or talking about a particular character to another character played by the same actor in a subsequent scene — could make the play more than a little confusing to someone not well versed in it. And my only reservation with the many Pearl productions I've seen over the years remains — their reticence to take chances, to push the given work in directions it could go if given the opportunity. For all of its claims that it's taking risks here, I don't see them. The result is occasional flatness — like Hermione's trial scene which takes place across a dining room table instead of in a space which would highlight the towering qualities of both the queen's strength and the king's madness. There's more material here than the Pearl seems willing to mine.
Still, there's a lot to be said for a careful, disciplined approach, and for the most part it works here. In the midst of a cold and miserable February, A Winter's Tale is meant to warm the hearts and minds of its audience, and this production does that. If you're looking for some respite from the bleak mid-winter, you could do worse than to begin your search at the Pearl.