A Messed Up Play Masterfully Performed

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Title: The Winter’s Tale

Rating: 4 Stars

I’d written about how completely amazing Hamlet and Twelfth Night were this year. This was kind of to be expected, although I was still shocked at how great they were.

I was interested to see how they were going to handle the third play in my itinerary, The Winter’s Tale. I’d written about this play some weeks back (click here to view).  It’s a weird one. The first three acts is a straight on Othello-like fit of mad jealousy as a king (Leontes) hounds his wife (Hermione) to her death. The last two acts is a pastoral comedy in which everything gets wrapped up nicely and everyone goes off singing and dancing.  Well, except for the boy prince that dies of grief/shame because of his father’s (the king) treatment of his mother (the queen) and the guy that gets eaten by the bear.

How were they going to deal with this hot mess? I was a little suspicious because last year I watched Antony and Cleopatra at OSF. This is also a messy play because, first of all, there are just so many scene changes taking place across multiple continents that it’s hard to feel continuity, and secondly, you have to buy into the tragic deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, who spend most of the play carousing and making foolish choices. Honestly, of all the plays that I’ve seen at Ashland, Antony and Cleopatra was the weakest. It was well executed, but I did not leave transported.

For The Winter’s Tale, the OSF did quite well. They can’t resolve all of the issues with the play, so it doesn’t get the highest possible rating, but I think that they did the absolute best job that they could, given the play itself.

Since I’ve already talked about the play, I really don’t want to revisit the plot.  Therefore, I’m just going to discuss the impressions that I got from the play as performed.

The main change that they made was to the setting. The kingdom of Sicilia was located in the Far East while the kingdom of Bohemia was located in the American West. This gave some additional context to the rigid hierarchical setting of Sicilia (the first three acts) vs the more relaxed setting of Bohemia (the fourth act).

As I mentioned in the earlier post, this play is about the madness of kings and the danger of such madness in a time when they yield unlimited power. There is no one to stop Leontes, the King of Sicilia, from his rash actions. When he orders his newborn daughter killed and his wife condemned despite all evidence of her innocence, there really is no one that can judge him or reason with him. Similarly, when Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, discovers that his son (Florizel) is carrying on with what appears to be a lowly shepherdess, he similarly loses his shit and pretty much starts ordering random people to be executed. Once again, there is no one that can overrule him.

Hermione’s faithful friend, Paulina was a powerful role. She serves as a Fury raging against Leontes. She is the only character, even while acknowledging his absolute power, that is resolute in standing up to him and condemning him. She is fearless in standing up to him and is ruthlessly harsh in judging him as he understands his folly. For the next sixteen years, in his mourning, she is constantly by his side reminding him of his errors. I missed the power of her character in my reading of the play. This was excellently performed.

Florizel really is kind of a dick. He is pretending to be a simple shepherd’s boy to woo Perdita. Sure, he’s legitimately in love with Perdita, but you have to figure that the wooing has been taking place over a period of time and he doesn’t think once to tell his true love, um yeah, I’m actually the crown prince? When Polixenes discovers that Florizel is pursing forbidden love, he not unnaturally comes to the decision that the shepherd family must be trying to entrap his son, so orders Perdita’s adopted brother and father executed.  Florizel runs off with Perdita, but pretty much leaves her family to the wolves.  Dick move, dude.

Speaking of which, between act three and act four, sixteen years have passed, so they have to do something to the characters that span those acts to show that they’ve aged. Amusingly enough, for Perdita’s adopted father, the shepherd, they apparently made the decision to kind of make him look like the Dennis Hopper character from Waterworld. Bold choice!

This play is most famous for the absurd stage direction, Exit pursed by bear. How do you do this? Do you bring a trained bear on tranquilizers on stage and drag him around? Do you put a man in a bear suit? Keep in mind that quite literally a man, a real character with real lines that just gave an affecting speech to the abandoned new born Perdita and is the husband to Paulina, is going to be eaten by this bear, so it really doesn’t seem right to make a joke out of it.

In this case, they made the bear in the form of a Chinese dragon. This is actually a wise choice. It serves the purpose without being ridiculous. You can also make the argument that this in service to the fact that part of the play is taking place in the Far East. Alas, the scene actually takes place in Bohemia, which is actually the American West in this play, so it doesn’t completely hold water, but it served the purpose well.

Finally, WTF is going on with Hermione’s statue? As a recap, sixteen years later, after the two kings are buddy chums again and Perdita has been recognized as the daughter of Leontes, and therefore Florizel and Perdita can be married without worrying about any of that pesky shepherd blood getting mixed in, there is one more reveal.

Paulina wheels out a status that is the absolute likeness of Hermione (even aged sixteen years). All present ooh and ahh over it and can’t get over how lifelike it is. Paulina orders it to come to life, and lo, and behold, it does. It embraces Perdita as her daughter and Leontes as her husband. Everyone lives happily ever after (again, except for the boy prince and the dude that got eaten by the bear).

So, what just happened? Has Paulina been hiding away the queen for sixteen years just waiting for the moment where it would be really cool to show her off to the king? Or was it really a statue that Paulina, using some magic powers, somehow brought to life? And if so, how did Hermione not end up slightly fucked up like that that dude’s wife from Stephen King’s Pet Sematary?

Obviously, hiding of the queen is the more likely answer, but I have to say, Paulina did a pretty convincing David Copperfield (magician, not Dicken’s urchin) act in the unveil. She definitely sold it as a statue coming to life. If she was really doing a mind fuck, then for what purpose? Granted, Leontes is now a Buddha of restraint now, but if I was a king and knew that someone was hiding the queen from me for sixteen years, I might have felt the need to go Tarantino on her.

Bottom line, this is still a weird play. However, the OSF did a masterful job presenting it.

That was the theme of this year’s trip to Ashland. I had concerns with all three plays: Hamlet, Twelfth Night, and The Winter’s Tale. In each case, my concerns were evaporated and each play was truly an amazing transcendent performance, never to be forgotten.

And this is why I go, year after year.

 

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