As you may have gathered from my previous post, while I am a Shakespeare & Company groupie, I am by no means a Shakespeare & Company zealot. Over the years we have seen some amazing productions. We’ve also seen some middling ones. In my recollection, I can only term one Shake & Co show that we’ve ever had the privilege to see “terrible” (buy me a beer sometime and I will be happy to divulge the details of that ill-fated excursion).
By my standards, this year’s production of The Winter’s Tale was, in fact, excellent.
The Winter’s Tale is not a frequently performed piece. There are reasons for this. The plot is halting, difficult to engage in and breaks unities like it was goin’ out of style. The characters are complex, but not in a rich wonderfully aged wine way, more like a sour perfume this-smells-like-everything-and-thereby-my-grandmother way. The fantastical elements demanded by the script are technically difficult to place onstage and thereby usually not cost effective for theatre companies. I mean, you can’t ignore the most famous stage direction in theatre history (“Exit, pursued by bear”). While Shakespeare may have had easy access to bears since the theatres on the South bank usually doubled as bear-baiting rings, a modern company has to be a bit more creative with this particular piece of canon.
The real clincher to staging a problem play is its problems. In my opinion, the merit of any production of a problem play can be judged based upon how well or poorly it handles the innate complications left by the playwright, debated by scholars, and inherited by thespians. The Winter’s Tale, in addition to aforementioned technical challenges, has its own dramatic baggage.
Because how can anybody really explain Leontes’ insistence upon Hermione’s sullied honor? The characters in the play do not understand it, and certainly we the audience understand it even less. Unlike in Othello, we are not presented with any argument whatsoever as to why Leontes believes his wife is cheating on him. It is entirely up to the actors and the director to solve this problem and take Leontes from a loyal husband to a jealous tyrant in the span of about twenty minutes without any text to back the transformation.
This production did a passing job of such explanation. Jonathan Epstein’s performance of a deeply disturbed King put me in mind of some mental illness. Alternate personalities perhaps, some passing fit of rage and emotion unable to be contained in a sane man’s psyche. Given what little Shakespeare left him, Epstein made it work as best he could (which, might I add, was pretty darn amazing… this fault in story-telling is Shakespeare’s and it is all any actor or director can do to patch it up as best they can).
I have long been a fan of director Kevin Coleman’s work. It was his all-female production of Comedy of Errors back in the early nineties that first turned me on to Shakespeare. This show certainly does not disappoint in the direction department. Perhaps the crowning moment of Coleman’s genius is seen in the otherwise hum-drum and drab prelude to the Bohemian Sheep-Shearing festival. Rather than sit and listen to long and boring text delivered by ingénue roles, Coleman gives us an entire pastoral comedy without words behind the principle players including slapstick, brawls, girl-on-girl action, and utter chaos multiple times over. I think this man could have rescued Dance of the Vampires if he had directed it.
Perhaps the largest disappointment came from Elizabeth Aspenlieder’s Hermione. The role is a difficult one requiring both strength and vulnerability to execute properly, and I simply don’t think Aspenlieder’s command of the verse and her own depth of emotion was sufficient for the part. Middling at best, her performance was among the weakest of the assembled tour-de-force.
But what Aspenlieder lacked in chutzpah, Corinna May as Paulina made up for in sheer radiant power. In the interest of full disclosure, I trained with Corinna May. I am a Corinna May fan-nearly-to-the-point-of-stalker. I would listen to Corinna May read the phone book for five hours and count myself happy. This woman is amazing and this role is absolutely perfect for her. I tend to envision Paulina as older, but that may be due to having only heard her monologues performed by seventy-year-old women in a training program I was in once… Despite this pre-determination (which, by the way, does not match Corinna’s actual age bracket), I was in love with her performance.
And the clowning. Kevin Coleman tends to wear the nose at Shakespeare & Company, so it is no small wonder that his son Wolfe Coleman in the role of Clown or “Young Shepherd” is one of the best classical clowns I have ever seen. Wolfe’s antics are a breathe of fresh air in the oppressive and stuffy atmosphere created by the doom and gloom of act one. Impeccable comic timing, impressive physical prowess, and imperial actor’s judgment make for a flawless and mind-numbingly hilarious performance. There were aisles, I was rolling in them, and I would gladly brave them again to take in Wolfe’s uproarious antics.
In short, this production is definitely worth seeing. The Winter’s Tale runs until September fifth. Further information on tickets, etc. can be found here.