Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Winter's Tale

The Winter's Tale is my personal favorite of Shakespeare's plays. It's also one of the hardest to stage well. Neither comedy nor tragedy, it's classified (alongside Cymbeline and The Tempest) as a "romance," that tricky category that often places the most extreme elements of the other two genres side by side. How should a director, or dramaturge, or company handle the tonal switch from Leontes' bombastic dismissal of Hermione to the slapstick humor of Autolycus and the Clown? Do you set a consistent tone early so that the final scene--to my mind, some of the most beautiful writing in the Western canon--is equally devastating and joyful? And just how are you going to handle that old "exit, pursued by a bear" matter? Of the dozen or so productions of The Winter's Tale that I've seen, none has ever hit the sweet spot and gotten it just right.

photo: Richard Termine
I'm sorry to say that the current Off-Broadway revival, presented by The Pearl Theatre Company at The Peter Norton Space, does not buck this trend; in fact, this is one of the most disappointing productions of the underappreciated masterpiece that I've ever seen. Directed by Michael Sexton and featuring numerous members of The Pearl's resident acting company, it often feels like a woeful attempt at cleverness, or an MFA thesis project that went off the rails. Presented (as most of Shakespeare's plays today are) in a two-act structure, the scenes in Sicilia take place in the well-appointed dining room of a contemporary house. The actors more closely resemble the literature faculty of a second-tier liberal arts college than a royal court; Hermione's trial could easily pass for a particularly heated meeting of the tenure and promotion committee. Bohemia, on the other hand, is depicted as a hayseed and trailer-park paradise, where men in long beards wear their jorts with suspenders and the Natty Light flows freely. After the intermission, the actors begin to deconstruct the proceedings; I guess we wouldn't be able to understand what was going on otherwise? Nothing kills a classic faster than a director who thinks his concept is superior to the work to which it's supposedly in service.

The performances range from strong to competent to downright embarrassing. The guest artists easily overshadow the members of the Resident Acting Company. Peter Francis James makes a fine Leontes, and Steve Cuiffo finds the funny in Autolycus' writing without going overboard (a rarity). Imani Jade Powers, though green, makes a lovely and sincere Perdita. No other actors merit specific mention.

[8th row center, press ticket]

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