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A CurtainUp Review
By Jacob Horn
To be specific, the king Leontes (Anatol Yusef) has come to suspect his pregnant wife Hermione (Kelley Curran) of an affair with his friend, the Bohemian king Polixenes (Dion Mucciacito). Tragedy quickly erupts on all sides: he attempts to poison Polixenes, but the would-be executioner Camillo (Michael Rogers) instead warns his target and the two escape to Bohemia. Hermione gives birth to a daughter, but when Leontes refuses to believe an oracle proclaiming her innocence, she faints and her friend Paulina (Mahira Kakkar) soon announces her death.
Leontes can't escape the truth of the oracle, however. His son Mamillius (Eli Rayman) dies moments after it is said that he will not have an heir until he finds what is lost. That refers to his daughter, whom he has already ordered Antigonus (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) to expose in the wilderness. Antigonus meets his demise at the hands of a bear (Arnie Burton), but the child survives to be discovered by an old shepherd (John Keating) and his son (Ed Malone). She is named Perdita, Latin for "lost."
This first half of The Winter's Tale covers enough ground to be a work unto itself. On a scale from one to ten, the play starts at an eleven. By intermission, the death count stands at three, with two additional attempted murders on the docket. And then something unexpected, perhaps even jarring, happens—spring.
Sixteen years have passed, and Perdita (now played by Nicole Rodenburg) has grown into a young woman being pursued by Polixenes's son, prince Florizel (Eddie Ray Jackson). Where he placed tragic conventions before, Shakespeare introduces comical ones: parental disapproval of Perdita and Florizel's romance, a trickster character, a celebration of pastoral living, and ultimate redemption when Hermione is restored to life.
This messy mixture of tragedy and comedy has led some to suggest that The Winter's Tale be categorized as one of the so-called "problem plays," which defy the general Shakespearean typologies of history plays, tragedies, and comedies. And indeed, it's easy to imagine that the play presents quite the problem to a director. The two halves feel strange together. The beginning is so heightened, it easily comes across as melodramatic. The ending deflates this drama to achieve a tidy resolution.
Arbus's production doesn't avoid all of Winter's potential pitfalls, but it does admirably grapple with them head-on. The figure of the bear helps to unite the two modes of the play, serving as both menace and comic relief in the first half. In the second half, the same actor serves as the standard "fool" character, but whose playful indiscretions have a predatory undercurrent.
Arnie Burton, it should be said, lands this ambiguity quite well, and his occasional engagement with the audience has an air of spontaneity that keeps it from coming off as forced or cheesy.
In performance and in design, the two halves are otherwise sharply differentiated from each other. Pre-intermission, the feeling seems calculated to overwhelm. The performers shout more than they speak, with anger or fear bubbling under their words. The vast stage towers in daunting white and grey shades as snow falls (Riccardo Hernandez is scenic designer and Marcus Doshi is lighting designer). The costumes (by Emily Rebholz) are mostly dark. The music (by Justin Ellington, with additional compositions by Max Gordon, and played by Zsaz Rutkowski and Titus Tompkins) is heavy and sinister.
The arrival of spring, and the play's major shift in tone, is marked through the inversion of these elements: colors become brighter, the performances are injected with more levity and joy, and the music effuses celebration and cheer.
After the tragic half, the play's comedic half achieves much-needed equilibrium. That's not necessarily an indication that the production wasn't on firm footing earlier on. Arbus seems too deliberate in and aware of the tragedy's chaotic tone. This is a production that actively seeks to underscore the uneven tone of the play, to make it tangible in the experience of watching and responding to the performance.
But that doesn't mean that the latter half isn't more enjoyable. In addition to its change in register, it provides more opportunities for the sprawling ensemble cast to shine, as it greatly expands outward from the key drama between Leontes and Hermione and spans both Bohemia as well as Sicily. It also foregrounds the romance between Perdita and Florizel, one of the most functional and collaborative partnerships Shakespeare ever depicted and charmingly played here by Rodenburg and Jackson.
And what of that loud-mouthed, fiercely combative tyrant Leontes? When we return to him, he is meek, far more subdued than when we left Sicily. Grief and regret eventually have taken their toll. And when the time comes for his redemption (whether or not he deserves it is a question for another day), it feels especially satisfying in the current moment that it hinges on three women: Perdita, Paulina, and Hermione.
The Winter's Tale begins in the dark of winter, but it is ultimately a tale of spring—of rebirth and renewal. Seasons change, time passes, dark becomes light, pallor yields to rich color. In fully accentuating the contrast between the two, Arbus's production starts as impossibly grim, but leaves us grateful for the gift of a hopeful ending.
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