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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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (at the Stratford Festival)

We thought West Side Story was remarkably good (see the Emsworth review), but it turned out that the other musical at the Stratford Festival, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, was even better. It has zillions of little comic touches; we can’t remember when we’ve ever seen a funnier show.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Hysterium (Stephen Ouimette), a Roman slave, submits to his owner, Domina (Deann deGruijter)

A Funny Thing is set back in the golden days of Rome. As in the pre-war American southern states, these were golden times mainly for the masters, not so much for the slaves. So perhaps we should feel guilty about laughing at the plight of Pseudolus (Bruce Dow) and Hysterium (Stephen Ouimette), the two slaves who are the stars of this show — but we don’t. They belong to the family of Senex (Randy Hughson), hen-pecked, love-starved husband of Domina (Deann deGruijter), and father of Hero (Mike Nadajewski).

The story begins when Domina drags Senex off to the countryside for a vacation, leaving Pseudolus in charge of their son Hero. Domina leaves strict instructions that the boy is to be kept away from the house next door, which is occupied by a bevy of scantily-clad young women who are for sale as courtesans.

Hero’s parents do not know, however, that he has already fallen in love with Philia (Chilina Kennedy), a virgin courtesan whom he has seen at her window next door. Desperate to meet her, Hero enlists the help of Pseudolus, who spots a chance to make a bid to be freed. The resourceful Pseudolus extracts a promise of freedom from Hero if Pseudolus can help Hero (in his parents’ absence) win Philia’s affections.

The lovers’ first meeting is a great success, as they agree and harmonize on the important point that Philia is “Lovely” (one of the show’s best songs). Their future together is cloudy, however, because Philia has already been sold to a Roman warrior, Miles Gloriosus (Dan Chameroy). Her owner, Marcus Lycus (Cliff Saunders), knows that it would be death to fail to deliver Philia when the sword-happy Miles Gloriosus calls.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Cliff Saunders as Marcus Lycus, Stephen Ouimette as Hysterium, and one of the naughty parts of the scenery

The writers of the show, Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, must have had a blast coming up with the names for the characters. In the show, Pseudolus is a talented liar and a schemer; his schemes invariably leave the effeminate Hysterium in a state of nervous distraction; Senex’s wife Domina is a sadistic tyrant; and the preening, muscle-bound Miles Gloriosus is hilariously high on himself.

This is not one of the many musicals whose plots are paper-thin; A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum would be a marvelous farce if it had no music at all. And the writers (Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart) had a lot of fun with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forumwords in this play. For instance, try saying “the house of Marcus Lycus” two or three times in a row, and you’ll get an idea why it’s so funny when Pseudolus says it. In fact, pretty much everything Bruce Dow says and does in this show will crack you up; he’s a wonderfully talented comedian. Still, the actor we enjoyed most was Stephen Ouimette as Hysterium, always on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Bruce Dow, as the slave Pseudolus, puts it over on Dan Chameroy, as Miles Gloriosus

Director Des McAnuff has arranged for more funny things to be done on stage at any given moment than anyone will ever see; you don’t dare pay too much attention to one side of the stage for fear of missing good stuff at the other. One of the best touches in this show are the “Proteans” — three acrobatic actors who appear as mimes and in various hysterically comic guises all through the show.

Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics for A Funny Thing. We certainly have heard a lot of Sondheim in the last six months: the Stratford Festival’s West Side Story (see our review), for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics; the Shaw Festival’s Sunday in the Park with George (music and lyrics) (see our review); Sweeney Todd (music and lyrics) at Rochester’s GeVa Theatre (see our review). But this is the Sondheim show we liked best.

Other posts from Emsworth about shows in the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season:

The Scottish play, set in Africa! Shakespeare’s Macbeth at this post.

Classic French drama: Jean Racine’s Phèdre at this post.

Anton Chekhov’s wonderful The Three Sisters (see this post)

The Ben Jonson play Bartholomew Fair (see this post)

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (see this post)

The folly of suggesting that Shakespeare should be “translated” for modern audiences (see this post)

The marvelous quarrels in Julius Caesar and The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde (see this post)

The musical West Side Story (see this post)