The Winter’s Tale at the Guthrie Theatre
Photos by T. Charles Erickson
The Guthrie Theater presents “The Winter’s Tale” on it’s thrust stage through March 27. Known as one of William Shakespeare’s “problem plays” the story is split in half between two countries over the course of 16 years. But according to these reviews, “The Winter’s Tale” isn’t a problem at all…
There would be less heartache and injustice in the world if more people had the courage of Paulina in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.” As played with fearlessness and deep moral authority by Helen Carey at the Guthrie Theater, Paulina speaks truth to power powerfully.
This wife of a lord respectfully but determinedly challenges Leontes, the king of Sicilia who has gone crazy with jealousy and has publicly — and wrongly — accused his pregnant queen, Hermione, of infidelity with Polixenes, the king of Bohemia. Like a delusional leader bent on a particular course of action — he puts his wife on trial and banishes her — Leontes (Michael Hayden) has made up his mind and cannot be swayed. He dismisses the pleas of Hermione (dignified Michelle O’Neill), his counselors and even the gods, whose oracle (Suzanne Warmanen) is wheeled out for a dramatic pronouncement.
With the help of Sicilian lord Camillo (Bob Davis), Paulina helps set things right in Jonathan Munby’s lovely, lusty, and a tad overdrawn production that opened Friday in Minneapolis.
William Shakespeare never wrote a play as bipolar as “The Winter’s Tale.” Its first half is a chilling drama of power, paranoia and an obsession that damages everything it touches. Then the play executes a whiplash-inducing U-turn into romantic comedy, its characters donning disguises and waxing whimsical about love and theft.
Hence, by the end of the Guthrie Theater’s production of “The Winter’s Tale,” you may feel as if you’ve attended two plays. But they’re both imaginatively staged and strongly acted, filled with engaging design ideas in both sound and scenery. While it’s not among Shakespeare’s most satisfying plays, the Guthrie gives it an interpretation worth experiencing.
That’s partially because each of the play’s settings — dark, tragic Sicilia and sunny, festive Bohemia — is brought to such vivid life by the design team, with Alexander Dodge’s elegant evocation of a White House reception hall standing in stark relief to a bright birch forest where composer Adam Wernick lends Shakespeare’s songs a bluegrass bent…
…It’s unlikely that you’ll come away feeling “The Winter’s Tale” deserving of a place alongside Shakespeare’s masterpieces. But the talented cast makes music with his poetic language, while the designers deliver one interesting idea after another.
In contrast to the Acting Company’s Comedy of Errors–recently seen on the Guthrie’s McGuire Proscenium Stage–this Winter’s Tale dons Shakespeare’s unparalleled language like it’s slipping into a perfectly-fitting glove. The line readings sound natural and there’s no problem following the actors’ meaning: the cast members glory in the clever and sometimes farcical plot.
A sterling cast it is, led by Michael Hayden and Bill McCallum as Leontes and Polixenes respectively, kings whose brotherly relationship is severed when Leontes accuses Polixenes of having adulterous relations with Leontes’s wife Hermione (Michelle O’Neill). Tragedy ensues, and Act Two fast-forwards 16 years, when Leontes’s cast-off daughter Perdita (Christine Weber) has fallen in love with Polixenes’s son Florizel (Juan Rivera Lebron)–which would be convenient, except that no one realizes Perdita is anything more than a shepherd’s daughter, and fraternizing with the locals was not cool when you were an ancient prince. (Well, at least not to the point of marrying them.)
… At the heart of this production’s success are the uniformly strong characterizations, particularly by Hayden and McCallum in the crucial roles of the estranged kings. Hayden’s performance is extreme: he starts to fray as soon as the play begins, and within minutes he’s entirely unhinged. A more subtle take on the character would certainly be possible, but Hayden is so powerful that I’m not going to quibble. As mother-daughter pair Hermione and Perdita, O’Neill and Weber are regal and empathetic: there aren’t many actresses who could stand in a forest in a handmade dress and a wreath of flowers and look unmistakably like royalty, but Weber is certainly one.
With its lucid, compelling, gleefully entertaining presentation of a classic story, The Winter’s Tale has it all. It’s only February, but I’m going to call it: this will likely prove to be one of the best shows of the year.
It’s great. It moves along at a tremendous pace, and benefits from terrific performances. Helen Carey will be singled out in every review published, and with cause. She plays Paulina, whose function in this play is to defend the virtue of the accused queen, and Carey brings a regal sort of rage to her role, as though she were one of those very proper English headmistresses that you daren’t cross. She’s all moldering stares and withering comments, and she’s somehow both heroic and terrifying. But I should point out that there really isn’t a weak performance in the play. Especially good, among many, is Guthrie regular Bob Davis, playing Camillo, the jealous king’s right hand man and, for the sake of justice, his betrayer. Davis has a weary, wry humor about him, and, in some ways, he’s our guide through the play’s shift in tone — when the action shifts to the pastoral romance, he’s there as well, grounding it.
Like a lot of Shakespeare, this production takes great liberties with the approximate date in which it’s set, which usually annoys me — it often is gimmicky at best, and sometimes gives me the impression that the director doesn’t trust Shakespeare enough to just throw people into togas or farthingales and let the story do the work. And so this production, which opens on New Year’s Eve with a group of tuxedo-clad men and evening-gown-beclad women dancing the twist to Christina Baldwin singing popular standards, seemed like it might be equally guilty. But director Jonathan Munby, in his first gig at the Guthrie, does trust Shakespeare — he’s exceptionally precise in his direction, communicating the story as much through intelligent staging as through the performances.
And there is the same intelligence in his locating the play in the era of Kennedy’s Camelot. This is, after all, about a king, played by St. Paul native Michael Hayden, whose underlings cannot rebuff his decisions, even when they are very bad ones, which has echoes of Kennedy’s Camelot, and the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Additionally, it sets the later, pastoral action in the 1970s, and while the story is set in Bohemia, Munby sets it in bohemia — a sort of rural countercultural utopia where everybody is dressed in bell bottoms and polyester and, in the morning, clumps of semi-undressed women will stagger out of a single tent as jug-band music plays. Aside from being great fun to look at, this is an effective device for signaling the play’s tone shift — the period between Kennedy and the early ’70s represented an instantly recognizable epochal cultural shift.
From a psychological viewpoint, the Guthrie Theater is to be commended simply for having the nerve to launch a February production with winter in the title. At this bitterly frigid time of year, risking that Minnesotans won’t be repulsed by a reminder of the climate is no small gamble. Those that manage to look beyond the offending word, however, will be rewarded with a reinvigorating take on William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, one that uses irrepressible passions to restore enchantment to the season.
Of all the Bard’s works, The Winter’s Tale is notoriously difficult to categorize. With a storyline that drastically shifts between place and time, along the way exchanging central characters, the work represents an undeniable challenge. The play’s first half deals primarily with the foolishness of Leontes, the king of Sicilia, whose irrational jealousy compels him to accuse his pregnant queen, Hermione, of adultery with his lifelong friend, Polixeness, king of Bohemia. Everything about the narrative feels like a grand tragedy before Shakespeare takes an abrupt curve, flash-forwarding the plot sixteen years and relocating to the kingdom of Bohemia, where the teenage Perdita, unaware that she is actually the daughter of Leontes and Hermione, has fallen in love with Florizel, prince of Bohemia and son of King Polixeness.
Marked by such continually shifting focus and tone, The Winter’s Tale by all conventional logic shouldn’t work…and yet the play not only works, it captivates. The genius of the gambit resides in Shakespeare’s uncanny balancing of elements, the way the comedy plays off of the tragedy, each reinforcing the other with skilled verve. Demonstrating a deft understanding of the mixture, director Jonathan Munby creates a dynamic fusion of styles, alternating through passages both grim and fanciful.
So – have you seen “The Winter’s Tale?” If so, what did you think? Share your review in the comments section.