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The Winter’s Tale

A World of Leontes

The Pearl Theatre Company in association with the Shakespeare Society, New York, New York
Saturday, March 7, 2015, C–110&111 (center stalls)
Directed by Michael Sexton

Leontes in casual sport jacket, open collar shirt, nice pants sitting on toy box, Lincoln Log set at his feet, Persian rug on the floor, closet, bar cabinet, poster, and rest of dining room in background, Lord carrying the swaddling clothes around a baby, Antigonis walking behind him, and two other lords over by the dining room table
Leontes (Peter Francis James, left) resists the pleas of his court (from left, Adam Green, Dominic Cuskern as Antigonus, James Udom, and Steve Cuiffo) to save his newborn baby whom Leontes claims is the bastard child of his wife, Hermione, and his best friend, Polixenes. Photo by Richard Termine, Blake Zidell and Associated.

You might notice that Brett J. Banakis's set for the Pearl Theatre's production of William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale includes a lot of booze. You might even count the bottles (six) and goblets, tumblers, and shot glasses (more than a dozen, plus a couple of mugs). You are in a dining room that spans the past 80 years: Federal-style table and china cabinet, a fireplace with porcelain statuary on the mantle, a framed Ballets Russes poster announcing the Igor Stravinsky/George Balanchine 1928 performance of Apollon musagète, a window seat doubling as a child's toy chest decorated with cartoon elephants, bears, and toucans. At the back of the stage, set off from the dining room with wood sliding doors, is a vestibule with a piano and, on the wall, the ubiquitous gallery of framed family photographs you'd find in many homes—lots and lots of photographs, more than you have time to count if you started with counting bottles and glasses. At the foot of the piano is a yellow toy football (American style). We are, indeed, in a modern home, confirmed when the Sicilian court and its guest, Polixenes from Bohemia, enter en mass wearing contemporary clothes as they gather for a dinner party.

Secure in your knowledge of The Winter's Tale, you might expect the play’s plot of rash jealousy and resulting tyranny to unspool as a product of too much social drinking. But director Michael Sexton’s conceptual presentation of this late-in-the-canon romance turns out to be much more subtle. The first real prior-to-the-play clue of this production's thematic tack comes when the whole cast stops their indistinguishable conversations around the dinner table and looks out into the theater. They silently, but with pleasant expression, take in the audience, then resume their dinner party. This gesture welcomes us into their company, making us feel at home. We probably should have counted the photographs first.

There’s more stage business: one of the guests displays his skills with magic, Polixenes presents Leontes, King of Sicilia, a gift of a most rare fine wine (bottle number seven), and, the company then meanders off into the house. Only now do Camillo and Archidamus (in the script—an unidentified lord in this production) speak the play's first lines establishing the lifelong relationship of Leontes and Polixenes.

Some critics and productions view The Winter's Tale as a fairy tale, perhaps even the sad tale of sprites and goblins that Mamillius, son to Leontes and Hermione, whispers in his mother's ear. The play does have qualities of a Grimm tale, including Leontes’s overly rash descent into jealousy, a supernatural oracle, and the miraculous reunion of the family with the prince marrying the long-lost princess. However, Sexton, artistic director of the Shakespeare Society in New York, is not setting his play with any fairy tale trappings: his Winter’s Tale plays out as a domestic scene, the court of Sicily being no different from any 5 percenter's home.

Yet, it is a fantasy, a tale of imagination—in the mind of Leontes and, by extension, us. While holding true to Shakespeare's double lesson in tyranny (Polixenes proves just as irrational a ruler as Leontes) and his story of the redemptive power of true love and faith, this production plays out as an elaborate daydream. “Sir, you speak a language that I understand not,” Hermione says at her trial before her husband: “My life stands in the level of your dreams, which I’ll lay down.” “Your actions are my dreams,” Leontes responds.

Leontes (Peter Francis James) is already moodily brooding even before Hermione, at his request, entreats Polixenes (understudy Corey Whelihan in the performance we saw) to extend his stay in Sicily. This is the interchange that sets Leontes inexplicably down the path of jealousy—inexplicable in the text; some directors make Hermione overly affectionate toward Polixenes or even hint that they are trysting since he has been in Sicilia nine months and she’s almost nine months pregnant, but there's none of that in this production. Jolly Abraham portrays Hermione as a vivacious, light-hearted personality, quick to kid, given to gaiety, and yet a commanding presence. We sense she's been like this since Leontes courted her, and nothing at this dinner party suggests anything is going on between her and Polixenes.

Leontes has a tumbler in his hand the whole while, but the implication is that the booze might be lubricating his depression but doesn't directly dictate his actions. His pre-existing dented self-esteem is already coalescing into an imaginary state of persecution, seeing conspiracy and betrayal in what is really a healthy family unit and social network. When he accuses his advisors of being ignorant fools, their actual crime is nothing more than being oblivious to the simmering insecurities in Leontes's own mind. The repeated "too hot" that serves as the play's enigmatic crux line is delivered as a public/private transition. “Why, lo you now, I have spoke to th’purpose twice: the one forever earned a royal husband; th’other for some while a friend,” Hermione says in teasing manner snuggling up to her husband's breast. "Too hot," Leontes says, and James seems to be referring to the room temperature as he undoes the top button of his shirt. But as everybody else on stage laughs, he turns to the audience with the second, accusatory "too hot!" and from this soliloquy on, we seem to be seeing the play through his perspective as James engages in mesmerizing eye contact with us.

With this perspective, the staging takes on a theater-of-the-mind quality. The cast comprises only 10 actors, and they are playing 21 parts (several named lords are lumped into single roles). The characters are distinctively played, but we are never allowed to forget that the actors themselves are part of this pageant. This is most obvious in the portrayal of Time, the chorus-like figure who, halfway through the play, shifts the action 16 years forward. After the intermission, the entire cast returns to the stage and one by one—looking to each other as if passing a ball around—they say "I," and the last actor tagged then moves into Time's opening line: "I, that please some, try all, both joy and terror of good and bad, that makes and unfolds error, now take upon me, in the name of Time, to use my wings." Different cast members deliver the various lines of Time's speech, motioning to the actors who are playing named parts. Thus Dominic Cuskern gets the verbal spotlight twice, as he plays Antigonus, pursued by a bear at the end of the first half, and the Shepherd who raises the abandoned baby Perdita (Imani Jade Powers) in the second half. Notable, perhaps, in this ensemble presentation of Time is that James is holding what looks like a script notebook, the only one doing so. (The ensemble also serves as a chorus in lieu of the gossiping lords describing the reunion of the kings and restoration of the princess before the climactic final scene in Paulina's art gallery where Hermione's statue stands.)

The action never completely leaves Leontes's dining room, either. Chairs are overturned and white sheets cover the furniture (and Leontes, fallen asleep on the toy chest window seat) for the Bohemian winter. Skeins of colored yarn are strung over the vestibule entry, and the dining table becomes a picnic table—Corelle dishes replacing bone china—for the sheep-shearing feast. The Bohemian festivities play as something removed from the intimacy of the rest of the play—perhaps a real dream of the sleeping Leontes instead of his conscious delusions—but this is not to criticize these scenes, as I suspect it is Sexton’s intent. In fact, the performances in these scenes are so fun and the comic portrayals so rich, they establish this Winter’s Tale as one of the most enjoyable I’ve seen. The intimate quality returns with the action's return to Sicily, where Leontes huddles in the lifeless dining room, the china cabinet now bare.

At the center of the Bohemian revelry is Steve Cuiffo as Autolycus, the card trick practioner in both the Sicilian and Bohemian courts. Donning a guitar with a case emblazoned with "The Lone Wolf" in white paint, his Autolycus emerges for the play's second half singing of daffodils and doxy in the manner of a Bob Dylan dirge. He later appears at the sheep-shearing feast as a Steppenwolf guitarist channeling Elvis, sporting a flower-embroidered jacket, psychedelic headband, lamb chop sideburns, and clip-on sunglasses. The beating heart of these scenes, though, is Tom Nelis as Camillo, the true- hearted servant to the two kings. Disguised with Polixenes to spy on Prince Florizel, Nelis’s Camillo enjoys the party like a senior manager determined to be the life of the company barbecue, participating in all the games and dances with unbridled joy.

Autolycus wearing flower embroidered tan jacket, sideburns and red glasses with clip-on shades plays an acoustic guitar as Mopsa in short white dress strokes his leg and Dorca in knee-lenth jeans shorts hugs his shoulders. Polixenes disguised with beard and brown volksmarch suit stands in the background, Camilo sits on a chair next to the empty china cabinet in the back right
Autolycus (Steve Cuiffo) sings a ballad with Mopsa (Jolly Abraham holding his leg) and Dorca (Rachel Botchan) while the disguised Polixenes (Bradford Cover) and Camillo (Tom Nelis) watch. Photo by Richard Termine, Blake Zidell and Associated.

The actors show much alacrity in their multiple roles, even across quickly seguing scenes. Abraham switches from the regal Hermione to the flouncing floozy Mopsa. Adam Green is a sensible but politically astute Sicilian lord when he’s not the good-hearted but dense Clown in Bohemia. In both elements, Green creates a familial chemistry with Cuskern as Antigonus/Shepherd (in fact, throughout the cast, the collegial feeling on stage is palpable). A stage convention I've seen in other Winter's Tales is to double Mamillius with Perdita; this production doubles Mamillius with Florizel. The 5-foot-11-inch James Udom portrays the young Mamillius in green Charlie Brown Christmas pajamas, bounding about the stage with stuffed animals until his father's behavior turns him into a worried little boy. As Florizel, Udom reveals himself to be a master of Shakespearean love verse, delivering his lines so genuinely and tenderly that even the guys in the audience melt. If Udom is ever cast as Romeo, somebody please let me know.

Just as the cast is ever conscious that they are presenting a play, the staging itself is self-aware. A closet holds coats for Antigonus's upcoming journey with the infant, then turns out to be Hermione's prison cell before her trial. As that scene shifts to the Bohemian winter where Antigonus is taking Perdita, the closet resumes its job as storage for coats, but now holding nothing but furs, which are disseminated among the cast—you know what's coming: The bear is a multiplayer part. Notably, though, the bear's head hovers a moment over the infant in the basket before the bear continues with its pursuit of Antigonus. Autolycus gets a cute moment at the end of the sheep-shearing feast when he stuffs some of the leftover food on the table into his bag. When he snatches at the popcorn, the whole bowl of popcorn comes up as one. Cuiffo offers the audience a dry look before putting the prop back on the table and resuming his frantic activity.

Yet, even such a prop gag as that doesn't alter the play's overarching mood nor does it undermine Shakespeare's storytelling. The climactic statue scene still holds its magical power and emotional pow as Hermione is restored to her long-lost daughter (Abraham's tears are real) and her fully repentant lord (James's tears are real, too). Leontes has arrived at redemption, but in Abraham's expression is a woman who has hidden away for 16 years, still mourning the death of her son and lost time with her daughter. In Sexton's telling, The Winter's Tale has become The Cautionary Tale for the rest of us Leonteses: Grip the blessings you have in real life instead of wandering off into delusional fancies.

Eric Minton
March 10, 2015

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