Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2001
Okay, I cannot properly call this a review because Brandon and I departed for home at intermission. I can claim to be one of the few people in the world who is not a college English professor who has read The Winter’s Tale and actually likes it. And I have seen it performed twice before, which is one reason I agreed to Brandon’s entreaties that we go home to bed after the first three acts had chugged on for nearly two hours. I know what this show is about, I know how it ends, and I knew that the part I had seen was not that good. While I would have liked to have seen the shepherds and clowns, I doubted that they could repair the damage that had been done already.
There is no doubt that The Winter’s Tale is not one of Shakespeare’s better works. In it not even really one of his good ones. The first half is deeply tragic and the second half is incongruously comic. As a friend of mine said to me at intermission, “We’ve had the Greek tragedy, now we get the pie in the face” which is an apt a description of this show as any. But he and I were speaking from experience (his son had appeared in an abbreviated Shakespeare & Company production at the high school a few years ago). We knew what was coming next. The vast majority of the people who will cough up $33-$40 per ticket will not know what to expect and will be able to make little sense out of it in language nearly 400 years old.
Properly, The Winter’s Tale does not belong on the roster of a commercial summer stock theatre like the WTF where it gets a scant three weeks rehearsal time with actors who may or may not have experience and training in putting across Shakespeare. For one thing, it isn’t really a commercially viable show, and it never has been. I don’t think it raked in the bucks for the Globe back in the 17th century. Excited as I was when I saw the play on the WTF’s line-up – it was the ONLY show of their 2001 season that I had any interest in paying to see – I have now changed my tune. At first I thought how noble it was of the WTF to take a chance on a seldom-performed work of Shakespeare’s and bring it to a wider audience. I now realize that it will just turn a lot of people off to the work of the Bard, and that this is a play best left to college theatres and Shakespeare specialists like the Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare & Company.
As many of my close friends know, I was particularly interested to see how the bear would be handled. The Winter’s Tale is most famous for its stage direction, “Exit, chased by a bear” and I told the young man who took my reservations over the phone that I wanted “A bear or better” for my money. Well, that may be director Darko Tresnjak’s idea of a better bear, but I just hated it and it was a big reason I was easily persuaded to go home at intermission. If they couldn’t get the bear right, what was the point?
Tresnjak made a big splash last summer with his direction of Thornton Wilder’s unwieldy war-horse The Skin of Our Teeth which included a creative line-up of animal puppets entering Noah’s Ark in Act II. So I was hoping for a really interesting bear from him this summer – maybe something half-costume, half-puppet. What I was not expecting was a great big dumb cut-out of a bear head, visible only from the snout up, which rose from the floor of the stage while loud roaring noises eminated from the speakers. The eyes were covered with red lighting gels and bright lights shone behind them. The whole thing wobbled up and flashed its eyes at us and then got stuck and refused to sink back down. I understand that the night before it had refused to rise, leaving the poor actor on stage flailing at no bear at all while great roars filled the theatre. What a waste of money and effort. Just rent a damned bear suit and be done with it!
[NOTE: I understand from a friend who saw the show on 7/12 that they have abandoned the mechanical bear head and gone with an actor in a bear suit. Thank God!.]
The set was quite interesting, except for the bear, but the acting was dismal. I really just hated John Bedford Lloyd as Leontes, and since the whole first two acts depend on your having some understanding of and sympathy for this deeply flawed man that pretty much screwed up the evening. Kate Burton was okay as Hermione, but I was rather glad to think that I would be spared her for all of acts three and four and most of act five while she pretended to be dead. I can’t really say that anyone else on the stage made any impression on me at all, except the non-equity actress who looked lovely and said nothing as “Time, as a chorus.”
I really think that this must be a wearisome three hours if you hate Leontes and the bear is no good. If I had it to do all over again, I would have saved my money.
The Winter's Tale runs through July 15 on the Main Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs nearly three hours with one intermission. Children ages 10 and up with some knowledge of Shakespeare may enjoy the production, otherwise I would say for adults only. Call the box office at 413-597-3400 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2001