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Monday, 5 July 2010

The Winter’s Tale, Told by a Master

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Marti Maraden

The Story: Jealous King Leontes of Sicilia deludes himself into believing his queen Hermione had an affair with his best friend, King Polixines of Bohemia, and now carries his child. He orders his advisor Camillo to murder Polixines, but Camillo cannot obey – he and Polixines flee to Bohemia. Enraged, Leontes arrests the shocked queen, and thus begins a terrible cycle of misery that is yet happily resolved – sixteen years later. (For a full synopsis, click here.)

One of Shakespeare’s later works, The Winter’s Tale belongs to that dubious class of his plays called ‘romances’, the plots of which contain both tragic and comic elements, and spans an incredible length of time. Thus, like Pericles, The Winter’s Tale is rarely performed. But as any publisher (or librarian) knows, romance sells; there is no reason why directors should shy away from stories such as these.

Fortunately for us, this is something Marti Maraden knows, and her graceful touch shines in this story suitable for any summer’s evening, allowing the fairy-tale like elements of the fable to charm her audiences completely.

The differences between the Kings are made obvious in costume, designed by John Pennoyer; Sicilia is somber, elegant and tailored, the women wear their hair in Grecian fashion, the men wear their hair short and tidy. In Bohemia, although it is described as less opulent than Sicilia, it is wild with colour, hand-crafted textiles and men and women who wear their hair long, or covered in bright (and furry) hats and scarves.

The parallel stories of the two Kings are not as obvious, but both go off the rails – sixteen years apart – and threaten to exile their children. As Leontes, Ben Carlson (left) leaves no doubt that Leontes is a jealous husband, quite possibly with a god-complex, but very definitely paranoid. He is most disturbing when he seems to barely be keeping it together, and when he is physically confrontational with Camillo (Sean Arbuckle) and Antigonus (Randy Hughson); the power of a tyrant is palpable every seat in the house.

Dan Chameroy’s Polixines (right) is also a tyrant of a sort; after meeting his son’s beloved and witnessing her worth, he still flies into an implacable rage; while Leontes rants, Polixines demands with quieter, more threatening anger. It is satisfying to see Mr. Chameroy hold his own with the Bard, known as he is for his musical roles.

The accused Queen Hermione is portrayed by Yanna McIntosh (below, background), who once again demonstrates the strength of a Shakespeare heroine. Reduced from queen to prisoner, both children taken away from her, dressed in rags, Hermione must defend herself on trial, and this is where Ms. McIntosh is devastating: not only does she clearly present Hermione’s belief in her own innocence, but she also shows her anguish, bewilderment, and despair, all the while retaining the regal bearing of a queen.
Hermione’s rock in this turbulence is her friend Paulina, played by the indomitable Seana McKenna (left, foreground). Paulina is the moral centre of the play, the person who speaks the common sense Leontes will not hear, the fairy-godmother who keeps Hermione’s memory alive for sixteen years. Ms. McKenna is also the rock of this production that in Ms. McKenna’s interpretation, Paulina’s fiery temper and waspish tongue comes from a huge heart. This Paulina has compassion for everyone, from the ranting Leontes to his tiny baby; Ms. McKenna shows it in the sympathetic pat she gives her husband, in the way she holds Hermione at her trial, in the delight she shows at Florizel and Perdita’s arrival and especially in the tears she sheds at the families’ final reunion. (And her delivery of a Shakespearean zinger is without equal.)

The anti-Paulina of the play is Autolycus, played by Tom Rooney (right), who shows him to be as much a coward as a rogue; his antics will have the audience watching their own purses (literally, for anyone sitting in the front row). His hijinks are some of the comedic highlights of the show, but there are two other devices that deserve some credit – Randy Hughson as ‘Time’, who, thanks to a crew-manipulated contraption, appears in mid-air at the start of the second half. He appears almost angelic, which is appropriate, given that he ends the previous scene exiting “pursued by a bear”. The bear in question is part prop, part costume, part puppet; very abstract in design and brilliantly lit only in strobes, looks very much like the nightmare of a King’s diseased mind come to life. It was incredible to behold, and many kudos to the actors/props/wardrobe people who made it corporeal.

This play is a marvel, the first to which I bought second tickets. Ms. Maraden knows well enough that a fairy tale does not to have the depths of its subtext plumbed for suspect explanations – all it needs is the story, the words of the characters, and an audience willing to have faith in both.

The Winter’s Tale continues in repertory until September 25th at the Tom Patterson Theatre.

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