The Winter’s Tale at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Yanna McIntosh and Ben Carlson as Hermione and Leontes

This one’s really good, too good to miss. The Stratford Festival’s 2010 presentation of The Winter’s Tale is wonderful theater, full of warmth and humor, beautifully acted — and refreshingly free from distractions. It’s so intelligently and lovingly directed that we’re nearly convinced this supposedly “minor” Shakespeare play is in fact one of the Bard’s masterpieces.

Just from reading the play — and we had not seen it on stage until now — you might think The Winter’s Tale has a convoluted story, too many improbable turns, and too many characters. In this show, though, the tale unfolds naturally and the improbabilities are passed off with easy good humor.

It’s the story of Leontes, king of Sicilia (Ben Carlson), who becomes insanely jealous when his pregnant wife Hermione (Yanna McIntosh) has unexpected success in persuading his best-friend-for-life Polixenes, king of Bohemia (Dan Chameroy), to prolong a visit. Hermione is shattered by his accusations of infidelity and gives premature birth to a baby girl. Polixenes flees for his life.

In a memorable scene in which tension alternates with tenderness, Hermione’s fearless friend Paulina (Seana McKenna) brings the little girl to Leontes in order to bring him to his senses, but he rejects the baby as a bastard and orders Paulina’s husband Antigonus (Randy Hughson) to take the baby out into the wilds and abandon her. Too late to save Hermione, who (apparently) dies of grief, Leontes realizes his folly.

Cara Rickets and Ian Lake as Perdita (pronounced to our surprise with the accent on the first syllable) and Florizel

Meanwhile, in Bohemia, the abandoned baby, Perdita (Cara Rickets) survives, is found and adopted by a shepherd (Brian Tree), and grows up to become, seventeen years later, mistress of a sheep-shearing festival that is visited by Polixenes in disguise. Back in Sicilia, in a mesmerizing and melodramatic climax that left few dry eyes in our audience, things come right again.

We were already fond of The Winter’s Tale for its gorgeous poetry and memorable characters (especially Paulina and Autolycus). But the one thing that kept it off our list of favorite Shakespeare plays (see this post) is that we couldn’t figure out why its characters behave the way they do:

Why would such trifling evidence make a well-regarded king like Leontes suddenly conclude that his affectionate and pregnant wife Hermione was canoodling with Polixenes?

And if the tender-hearted Antigonus is brave enough to defy Leontes when he orders that Hermione’s newborn infant be burned, why does he then meekly agree instead to leave the baby to the mercies of the wolves and vultures?

And if Hermione is not really dead, why does she punish herself by keeping herself a prisoner for sixteen years, especially after Leontes has come to his senses and repented?

And is there any good explanation for the Jekyll-and-Hyde act Polixenes puts on at the sheep-shearing festival? What kind of heel would go in disguise to the festival, have a friendly talk with Perdita and her adopted father, then turn on them, accuse them of plotting to ensnare the prince, and threaten to hang them all?

It seems to Leontes that Hermione (Yanna McIntosh) has gotten too friendly with Polixenes (Dan Chameroy). Given the large cast, it was helpful of the designer to clothe the Sicilians in grays and the Bohemians in bright colors.

We always worry that a director, faced with plot problems like these, will contrive solutions and impose them on her audience. Would director Marti Maraden try, for example, to explain Leontes’s extreme jealousy by suggesting a same-sex attraction to Polixenes? (After all, Polixenes tells Hermione early in the play that when he and Leontes were boys, they were “pretty lordlings” who thought, like Peter Pan, “to be boy eternal” and who “knew not the doctrine of ill-doing.”)  Interpretations of classic plays involving sexual identity issues seem, sadly, to be in vogue these days.

But solutions like that are never satisfactory (nor did the playwright ever see Peter Pan). Fortunately, Ms. Maraden has wisely chosen to simply to tell the Bard’s story, with no attempts to hide or explain away its unlikely twists. The result couldn’t be better.

Ms. Maraden does not attempt, for example, the impossible task of suggesting how Hermione, who dies at the end of the second act, can be alive at the play’s end. And so when Seana McKenna (as Paulina) announces to Leontes that Hermione is dead, her passion and bitter anger convince us that it is so. And when, in the final scene, a living Hermione tells her daughter Perdita that she’d been hoping to see her someday, we are equally convinced of that.

Tom Rooney as Autolycus

There’s marvelous acting from the whole ensemble, even for such minor characters as Hermione’s jailer (Skye Brandon) and Emilia (Ginette Mohr). Not surprisingly, Tom Rooney is mesmerizing as the crowd-pleasing song-peddler and pickpocket Autolycus.

Seana McKenna

But the standout performances are from Ben Carlson, as Leontes, and Seana McKenna, who, as Paulina, sets a standard for “speaking truth to power” that no one is likely to match on stage or off. We hope never to be the target of such a savage, pitiless summary of our shortcomings as the one Paulina delivers to Leontes.

In this show we witness a battle for the heart of Leontes, fought by Paulina, Camillo (Sean Arbuckle), and other members of his court, who defend Hermione’s virtue with hard logic. In Mr. Carlson’s portrayal, Leontes stakes everything on his conviction that Hermione has cuckolded him. But on how firm a foundation is he standing? We see Leontes begin to doubt himself:

If I mistake
In those foundations which I build upon,
The centre is not big enough to bear
A schoolboy’s top.

Leontes is furious with Paulina for telling him that “the root of his opinion” is “rotten as ever oak or stone was sound,” and he blusters that his own convictions are enough for him:

I am satisfied and need no more
Than what I know

But Paulina is right; when he hears that Hermione is dead, Leontes realizes that he has been standing on air. The king’s internal struggle is what we all feel when we find ourselves believing something that can’t be reconciled with what we know. Like Leontes, we dare not acknowledge the possibility that we might not be standing on solid ground.

An 1836 imagining of Autolycus by British artist Charles Robert Leslie

With The Winter’s Tale you don’t hear “famous lines” every minute or two as you do with, say, Macbeth. But there are marvelous flights of rhetoric in The Winter’s Tale, and this cast makes them memorable. We won’t quickly forget the paranoia on the face of Mr. Carlson as Leontes indicts his queen for allegedly playing footsie with Polixenes in a speech that, ironically, removes any remaining doubt that there is “nothing” to Leontes’s suspicions:

Leontes: Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? stopping the career
Of laughing with a sigh?–a note infallible
Of breaking honesty–horsing foot on foot?
. . . Is this nothing?
Why, then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing;
The covering sky is nothing; Bohemia nothing;
My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings,
If this be nothing.
Camillo: Good my lord, be cured

Seana McKenna, as Paulina, calls Leontes to account in a no less powerful “nothing” speech of her own:

That thou betray’dst Polixenes,’twas nothing;
That did but show thee, of a fool, inconstant
And damnable ingrateful . . . .

This Winter’s Tale is easily among the best Shakespeare we’ve ever seen.

We wonder if anyone else noticed, among the modest props, the basin of translucent spears at the corner of the stage in the final scene. With a start, we realized, at the same moment as our daughter, seated right behind us, that they looked exactly like the life-restoring crystals in Superman’s “fortress of solitude” — just the thing to remind us that Hermione too had retreated to a solitary refuge.  We like the designer’s sense of humor.

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