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A CurtainUp Review
The Winter's Tale
There's much to like in the Workshop's version although it has a number of shortcomings. Since they are minor ones they don't seriously mar the production or prevent it from reaching its magical destination.
Ryan Lee briskly directs and makes many good choices, particularly in his casting of the principals and several supporting characters, many of whom do double-duty. While there are some weak links in the twelve-member ensemble and not all possess solid Shakespearean chops, the dozen thesps carry the story from Sicily to Bohemia, and back again to Sicily, for the theatrical coup of the "statue scene."
Stepping into the shoes of Leontes is a tall order for any actor. Luminaries like John Gielgud have perhaps set the gold standard, and any actor undertaking the paranoid king must have range enough to portray his complex psychological mind-set. Ethan Cadoff inhabits Leontes with a misogynous rage through Act 3 Scene 2. He then rightly shifts his acting gears, and imbues the royal with a significant and deeply-affecting humility straight through to the denouement. Playing opposite him is Laurie Schroeder, who is endowed with the physical stature and regal poise to play the good Hermione.
There's a strong showing by Jeff Paul as the wrongly-accused Polixenes. In Act 4 Scene 4, when engaged with Perdita in the art vs. nature debate, which is considered one of Shakespeare's most profound speeches, Paul scores solidly.
In the role of the hardy Perdita and independent-minded Florizel, Tess Frazer and Jon-Michael Miller are well-cast and have excellent chemistry and charm to spare. Robert Meksin is ideal as the roguish peddler Autolycus, giving with one hand, and taking with the other, and singing his merry ballads to all. Annalisa Loeffler is more than capable as the courageous Paulina, unabashedly speaking truth to power (think Leontes) and becoming a beacon for Hermione through her trial and beyond.
The adorable young Clark Loeffler plays Mamillius with much spunk. He is miscast as the chorus Time, however, a part best played by a mature actor.
The Winter's Tale is widely viewed as one of the Bard's masterpieces. And I tend to side with critic Harold Bloom who greatly preferred it to Cymbeline, rightly observing that it "surges with Shakespeare's full power" and that it is "Shakespeare's richest play since Antony and Cleopatra." Shakespeare, ever-experimenting as a playwright, learned the scope and quirks of tragicomedy (the term "romance" had yet to be coined in his day) by first trying his hand with Pericles (1607-8 ) and next with Cymbeline (1609-10). Having honed his craft with these earlier works, he was at the top of his game when he penned the The Winter's Tale .
Of course, Winter's Tale wouldn't sing without its lyrical pastoral elements. Little wonder that Lee conjures up the sheep-shearing feast scene of Act 4 with much exuberance and vitality. It's not the lavish decor (no-frills set design by Michael Minahan) that is mesmerizing but the joie de vivre that Lee generates with nearly the entire cast involved in the mythological fertility rituals. There's Perdita "pranked up" (colorful costumes by Angela Harner) as the goddess Flora, the Crown Prince Florizel ironically dressed as a peasant, and the rest as locals (including the Shepherd who adopted and raised the abandoned Perdita, and both Polixenes and Camillo in disguise). Whereas other directors have done this bucolic scene quite winkingly (many critics feel that Shakespeare was mocking the popular pastoral mode of his day), Lee orchestrates it with no satiric twist--and it comes across right as rain.
Most recent New York production of The Winter's Tale that I have been far more extravagant than this current one with the Workshop collective. What immediately comes to mind is the breath-taking one staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Park Avenue Armory in July 201l. The Edwardian-period stage set was stunning, as was the acting throughout. The other memorable staging was the Bridge Project at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's (BAM) Harvey Theatre in February 2009. Sam Mendes' production that included U.K. and American performers was a potpourri of international talent, with the formidable Simon Russell Beale playing Leontes.
While this Workshop rendering is less ambitious than some Winter's Tale productions I've seen, this one captures its life-enhancing message of rebirth and redemption. It's not the slickness of this production that will impress you. It's Shakespeare done with utter simplicity that unlocks the play's magic.