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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We preview the Stratford Festival’s 2010 season

The 36-year-old Michael Therriault, who once played Ariel in The Tempest, will play Peter Pan at Stratford in 2010

Life is too busy and money too scarce for us to drive all the way to Stratford, Ontario to see a disappointing show; we’ve got to be selective. The eight shows we saw in 2009 were mostly worth it; Julius Caesar and the musicals A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and West Side Story were memorable. But Bartholomew Fair and Macbeth left us fidgeting and annoyed, respectively, and made us feel we might have given them a miss.

Happily, for the 2010 season, the powers at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (here’s its website) have decreed that there will once more be four Shakespeare plays on the playbill (there were only three in 2009) out of a total of 12 shows. Here’s what we think of the menu, which also includes Kiss Me Kate, Evita, and J. M. Barrie’s original Peter Pan:

Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (at the Tom Patterson Theater)

This is the 2010 Stratford show we’re looking to most. It’s the story of Leontes, a Sicilian king who becomes violently jealous of his wife Hermione’s friendship with his friend Polixenes.

Ben Carlson

The Winter’s Tale should have a lot going for it. Marti Maraden was one of the main victims of the Stratford’s ill-conceived and short-lived experiment in having three co-artistic directors a couple of years ago, but she apparently holds no grudges and is coming back to direct this play. We like her Shakespeare better than anyone’s. Ben Carlson, a first-rate Shakespeare actor (Hamlet in 2008, Brutus in 2009), will play Leontes. Tom Rooney’s first two seasons at the Stratford have made him one of our favorite actors; he will play the philosopher-peddler Autolycus, just as in 2009 he played the philosophical Porter in Macbeth. Yanna McIntosh will, thankfully, take the place of the worst actress we’ve ever seen in a Shakespeare play, Nikki James, who was originally scheduled to play Hermione.

In one scene, the playwright directs that the character Antigonus, sent by Leontes to Bohemia to abandon Hermione’s (and his) baby to the cruel elements, should “exit, pursued by a bear.” Back in 1600, coming up with a suitable live bear for a show couldn’t have been very hard, since the drama theaters were also used for bear-baiting exhibitions. Fortunately, Ontario practically swarms with bears, so getting one should be a cinch. Should make for a lively show.

James M. Barrie

Peter Pan (by James M. Barrie, at the Avon Theater)

This is not, repeat not, a musical play, and it won’t be much like the treacly, annoying thing with Mary Martin that you’ve seen on television. It’s J. M. Barrie’s original stage play, first performed in 1904, and it’s one of the finest plays in the English language. At Stratford in 2010, the androgynous Peter Pan will be be played by Michael Therriault.

With Peter Pan, the Stratford Festival is trying to tap the kids’ market. But when we first saw the play at the Shaw Festival a few years ago, we found that Peter Pan was a dark, decidedly adult play, apt to scare the bejeezus out of the average five-year-old. Then again, maybe today’s five-year-olds, weaned on Darth Vader and Spiderman, can take it.

Shakespeare’s The Tempest (at the Festival Theater)

Christopher Plummer, who be 80 years old next summer, is coming back to Stratford to play Prospero. Surely there’s no finer Shakespeare actor in the world; Mr. Plummer’s King Lear at Stratford seven years ago was hands down the most breath-taking theater experience we’ve ever had. We were mesmerized by the zillions of great theater anecdotes in Mr. Plummer’s recent autobiography, In Spite of Myself (see Emsworth’s review at this post).

So even though it was only five years ago that we saw the late William Hutt in a marvelous performance of The Tempest at Stratford, we wouldn’t think of missing the 2010 show, though we do wish someone besides Des McAnuff were directing it. Folks will need to get their tickets for The Tempest early; the show is only running from June 11 through September 12, and at a relaxed schedule designed no doubt to keep Mr. Plummer from wearing out. Don’t plan to save money at a preview performance; the Stratford Festival is charging full price for every single performance of The Tempest.

Cole Porter, no doubt in the process of composing songs for Kiss Me, Kate

Kiss Me, Kate (music by Cole Porter, at the Festival Theater)

Another opening, another show. We love the songs of Cole Porter, and the plot of Kiss Me, Kate might have been written by P. G. Wodehouse himself, so this classic musical is tempting. Like so many musicals, it’s a show business story, and it has a play within a play: one of the characters, Fred Graham, is directing a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, starring Fred’s ex-wife Lilli as Katherine the shrew. Real-life actress Chilina Kennedy will play Fred’s girlfriend Lois Lane. Our favorite songs: “Always True to You in My Fashion,” “Why Can’t You Behave,” and “So In Love.”

Dangerous Liaisons (by Christopher Hampton, at the Festival Theater)

This is the racy play on which the 1988 movie, starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer, was based; you probably saw it. It takes us back to eighteenth-century France, when the amoral, idle nobility amused themselves by playing humiliating practical jokes on one another. Tom McCamus and Seana McKenna will play the jaded aristocrats whose game is to bring about the deflowering of a young girl and the fall from virtue of a married woman. Martha Henry will also be in the cast.

Shakespeare’s As You Like It (at the Festival Theater)

This would be among our top choices at Stratford for 2010 if it weren’t for our fear that the Stratford Festival’s Artistic Director, Des McAnuff, who has designated himself to direct it, will spoil the play with distracting gimmicks. (We have the same fear for The Tempest, but trust that Christopher Plummer will keep his director focused on the story of the play.) We have now seen two deeply unsatisfactory Shakespeare plays directed by Mr. McAnuff: 2008’s Romeo and Juliet and 2009’s Macbeth, and we are not alone in thinking that this is not where Mr. McAnuff’s talents lie. Couldn’t he have taken on Kiss Me, Kate instead? This is sheer stubbornness.

Tom Rooney

But As You Like It seemingly has a foolproof cast, with Paul Nolan (star of 2009’s West Side Story) as Orlando, Tom Rooney in the dual roles of the good duke and the bad duke, Ben Carlson and Lucy Peacock as the unenthusiastic fiancées Touchstone and Audrey, and Brent Carver as Jacques. How badly could the play be spoiled?

Evita (by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, at the Avon Theater)

This is not our favorite Rice-Webber show; indeed, we have only lukewarm enthusiasm for Andrew Lloyd Webber shows after Jesus Christ Superstar. But Evita should pack them in, as did West Side Story in 2009. And as the very first rock-style musical presented at the Stratford Festival, it’ll presumably draw a younger audience.

Not a bad marketing move, considering that the Stratford Festival depends so heavily now on revenues from its high-priced musicals. Evita will be directed by Gary Griffin, who did practically everything right with West Side Story, and it will star Chilina Kennedy, who was dazzling as Maria in West Side Story and is now clearly Stratford’s diva of choice. Ms. Kennedy will play the charismatic wife of Argentinian dictator Juan Peron, and everyone will sing along with “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (at the Tom Patterson Theatre)

This is yet another musical show — but one more in the nature of a revue, with commentary from the performers, than a play. Brent Carver will be the lead troubadour, singing the songs of the late Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel, who wrote his songs in French.

We know a few Jacques Brel songs that were translated into English and became hits in the late 1960s and early 1970s, like “If You Go Away” and “Seasons in the Sun.” But most of the songs in the show won’t be familiar to us. Will there be English subtitles? We’re probably not adventurous enough to find out.

Shakespeare’s The Two Gentleman of Verona (at the Studio Theatre)

Emsworth has never paid much attention to this early Shakespeare play, let alone seen it performed, but a recent reading has whetted his interest. It’s the story of two pals, Valentine and Proteus, and their women; no sooner has Proteus successfully courted one named Julia than he leaves for Milan, where he promptly forgets her and falls in love with a duke’s daughter, Silvia, who falls in love instead with Valentine even though the duke intends her for someone else. The plot will seem familiar to hardcore fans of P. G. Wodehouse, who stole it for his 1931 comic novel Big Money.

In 2009, instead of a fourth Shakespeare play, the Stratford Festival put on Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, which had a large cast and a lot of fancy original props. It couldn’t have been cheap to mount. The Two Gentlemen of Verona will be more economically performed at the small Studio Theatre space, where the audience surrounds the stage. There will be only a short window of opportunity to see this play; it will run for less than two months (from July 30 to September 19, 2010).

For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again (by Michel Tremblay, at the Tom Patterson Theatre)

In its 2009 season, the Shaw Festival offered Michel Tremblay’s Albertine in Five Times; in 2010, the Stratford Festival will put on Tremblay’s well-received 1998 play For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, a comedy based on the gay French-Canadian playwright’s relationship with his mother.

Lucy Peacock will play Nana (the mother character); Tom Rooney will be the Narrator (presumably a stand-in for Tremblay himself). This play will run for only two months, from July 27 to September 26, 2010.

Do Not Go Gentle (by Leon Pownall, in the Studio Theatre)

A one-man show starring Geraint Wyn Davies could be really good; our appreciation for Mr. Wyn Davies grows year by year. He will play Dylan Thomas soliloquizing about his life and how he rates as a poet compared to William Shakespeare.

This very show actually just opened on Broadway! (We write as of December 8, 2009.) It won’t appear at Stratford, though, till July 2, 2010, where it will run through August 22.

King of Thieves (by George F. Walker, in the Studio Theatre)

This play is actually a musical — another one! — but the Stratford Festival evidently doesn’t dare to risk putting this world-premiere piece in one of its larger theaters. Wonder what Mr. Walker thinks of that! The show is a new take on old material, a tale of a couple of crooks (Mac, to be played by Evan Buliung, and his father-in-law Peachum, to be played by Sean Cullen).

George F. Walker

Its source is John Gay’s 1720 ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera (whose characters included Macheath and Polly Peachum), but most of us are more familiar with Bertolt Brecht’s and Kurt Weill’s 1928 The Threepenny Opera. Those were both set in London; Walker’s version is set in New York City in 1928.

This is the second year in a row that the Stratford Festival has put on a work by Walker; we didn’t see last year’s Zastrozzi. A few years back, we saw Walker’s straight play Nothing Sacred at the Shaw Festival, but it didn’t make a lasting impression.

From its press releases, we gather that the Stratford Festival will have avoided losing money during 2009 on the strength of having had two extraordinarily popular musical shows. By offering Peter Pan and Christopher Plummer in The Tempest on top of Evita and Kiss Me, Kate, management has probably taken its best shot at increasing the number of sold-out shows in 2010.

We can’t help noticing that there’s nothing on the 2010 playbill even remotely comparable to the Ben Jonson, Racine, and Chekhov plays that were seen in 2009. In fact, aside from the Shakespeare plays and Peter Pan, the Stratford is offering mostly contemporary shows. The Stratford Festival will be that much less of a “classical” repertory theater company in 2010.