Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, November 1999
I have not seen "The Winter's Tale" since that hazy period in my life BC (before children). Way back then I did a paper on Shakespeare's "romances", and I saw the scarcely performed play at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut, with the late great Fred Gwynne as Autolycus. I would imagine that is far more contact with "The Winter's Tale" than most people acquire in their lives, and yet, 20 years later, I found I had retained only the very basic information - the statue of Hermione coming to life, Leontes losing all through his unreasonable jealousy, and, of course, "exit, pursued by a bear".
There is no bear in this 90 minute version staged at Mt. Greylock Regional High School, and, alas, not enough of the plot to help the average play-goer figure out what the heck is going on. One of the reasons that Shakespeare & Company's 90 minute versions of the Bard's plays work is that we know the plot already. We can fill in the blanks in "Macbeth" or "Taming of the Shrew", and those are better plays to start with. Frankly, most of Shakespeare's plays are better than "The Winter's Tale", which, for all its charm, is large and rambling - hopelessly strapped trying to straddle comedy and tragedy, pastoral and historical.
When you have a weak play, cut by half for time constraints (all productions at the Fall Festival of Shakespeare have to clock in at or under 90 minutes), and then performed by high school students who tend to gallop through their lines, you have a problem.
And so it is greatly to the credit of the cast and directors Ben Lambert, Margaret Jansen, and Sheila Bandyopadhyay that there is some really great acting and some truly theatrical moments on the expansive and handsome set. If only you could follow the plot they would have a real winner on their hands.
I don't usually give away the complete plot of a show, because then you wouldn't need to go and see it, would you? But in this case I will make an exception because I hope more of you will go and see it once you understand what is going on. Leontes, King of Sicilia, and his pregnant wife Hermione have been entertaining Leontes great friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia, at their palace for several months. Leontes has become gripped with an insane jealousy, and becomes convinced that Polixenes and Hermione have been having an affair and that Polixenes is the father of the unborn child. Leontes plots to poison Polixenes, who, tipped off by a loyal servant, escapes by dark of night back to Bohemia. After being delivered of a daughter, Hermione is put on trial for treason and adultery, and even when word comes from the Oracle at Delphi that she is innocent, Leontes refuses to accept the truth. Hermione keels over and is pronounced dead at the same moment that the death of Leontes and Hermione's only other child, the Prince Mamillius dies following a long illness. Leontes has sent his newborn daughter out to a death by exposure, and so he finds himself alone and without an heir.
Truly the stuff of comedy, eh? But wait! There's more! Nearly twenty years later we discover Leontes and Hermione's lost daughter Perdita, being raised by an old shepherdess and her two foolish children in, where else, Bohemia. And to top it off, Perdita is being courted by Prince Florizel, son of King Polixenes, who doesn't exactly approve of his son marrying a shepherdess' daughter whose siblings are fools. Perdita and Florizel run away to Sicilia and seek Leontes assistance in convincing Polixenes that they should be married. The old shepherdess who found Perdita as a baby has kept the royal jewels and papers that prove her identity, and so the match is approved and Leontes is joyfully reunited with his lost daughter. Together Leontes and Perdita go to visit a statue of her late mother Hermione, which, as they wonder at its likeness, comes to life as it is revealed that Hermione is not dead, but waiting for her husband's forgiveness to return to his side.
In the longer version of the play the clown (split at Mt. Greylock into two roles) and the rogue Autolycus figure much more prominently in the second half of the play. In fact Autolycus is one of the best things about "The Winter's Tale". In the Mt. Greylock version the talented Rebecca Bradburd plays what is left of the role (about two scenes) with a great presence and tremendous energy, but even I never did figure out exactly what she was up to. She came on too late and stayed too brief a time for me to understand, or have the energy to care, how Autolycus figured into the larger plot. Everything seemed to end happily whether I cared or not.
Joshua Bishoff as the tormented and tormenting Leontes gets the lion's share of the stage time. He is great in the role, showing a new found maturity in his acting, but seeing so much of Leontes turns this "Winter's Tale" more tragic than comic. Bishoff is beautifully partnered by the serene and graceful Rebekah Tracy as Hermione. Tracy brings Hermione's honesty and true love of her callous King to the forefront of the character. I was really glad when she came back to life again.
There are many nice acting turns in this production: Kevin Tynan is solid as Antigonus (he who should be pursued by a bear); Emily Lackey was an empathetic Paulina; and Jonathan Pinckney had a nice moment as the doomed Prince Mamillius. On the comic side Laurah Turner as the old shepherdess and Chloe Paisley and Adam Tustin as her clown offspring were a riot. I bet you if Leontes had just had a clown in his court this whole mess could have been avoided...
No one is credited with designing the handsome multi-level set, but Sean McHugh, Benjamin Pilat, Eli Phillips, Rebekah Tracy, Pat Tool and Abigail Westwood built it. The lovely costumes inspired by the beautiful saris of India were designed by Betsy Pangburn.
Now that you know what this show is all about, I urge you to go and see some fine young actors at work. Shakespeare wrote thrity-six plays and just how many of them have you seen performed? Add "The Winter's Tale" to your list and support the Fall Festival of Shakespeare.
The Mt. Greylock Regional High School production of "The Winter's Tale" runs November 12 and 13 at 8 PM in the school auditorium, 1781 Cold Spring Road (Rt. 7) in Williamstown. It will also be performed on Thursday, November 18 at 8:30 PM at the Fall Festival of Shakespeare in the Robert Boland Theatre on the Berkshire Community College campus, 1350 West Street in Pittsfield. Call the school at 413-458-9582 for tickets and information on the performances at Mt. Greylock. Call A HREF="http://www.shakespeare.org">Shakespeare & Company at 413-637-1199, ext 106 for tickets and information on the Fall Festival, November 18-21 at BCC.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999