It’s always been difficult to artistically pigeonhole one of Shakespeare’s most paradoxical plays, “The Winter’s Tale,” because the plot veers so drastically from heavy drama to lighthearted comedy and then almost back again to (more or less) tidy things up before the final curtain.
And, incidentally, North Coast Repertory Theatre’s current production is made even more unusual by director Megan Hughes’ decision to “visually, costume-wise and prop-wise” set the show’s era as the 1960s. (Thoughts on the results of those choices later.)
But, back to the sudden, out-of-nowhere, intense behavior of a key character that first puts the audience emotionally off balance, without warning, within just a relatively few minutes into the first act’s action. That would be Leontes, King of Sicilia (a portrayal needing much more edge and depth by Joel Ellinwood), whose instantly unhinged tirade echoes that of another “insanely jealous” Shakespearean husband, Othello.
This time, the unproven-to-be-unfaithful wife is his obviously pregnant wife, Queen Hermione (a somewhat undefined, but engaging Andre Zvaleco), whom he vehemently accuses of being with child as the result of an adulterous affair with their guest, and his previous lifelong friend and King of Bohemia, Polixenes (powerfully portrayed by Scott Osborn).
Currently visiting Sicilia, accompanied by Bohemian lord Archidamus (a brief, solid appearance by Ray Waldo), Polixenes is unaware of what his friend-now-enemy thinks has been going on with Hermione. Although there is no proof whatsoever of such an illicit relationship, Leontes refuses to believe otherwise after seeing the two together exchanging what he perceives to be romantic looks and loving touches. Enraged, he pays no mind to the unreasonableness of this conclusion pointed out by loyal adviser Camillo (the always-steady Evan Needham), who fears for his king’s mental unraveling.
So, when Leontes orders Camillo to poison Polixenes, rather than do so, his former, faithful supporter not only warns the intended target (who, like Hermione, is completely innocent of shared adultery), immediately agrees to flee with the Bohemian king back to his own country.
Perceiving this to be an act confirming their guilt as part of a traitorous plot with his “unfaithful queen,” the furious Leontes now proceeds to not only separate her from their young, first-born son Mamillius (a feisty cameo by little Lilly Herlihy), but angrily sends her away to prison.
He turns a deaf ear to her pleas of innocence, as well as to those of another of his usually supportive lord Antigonus (a wonderfully understated and believable Jim Buschmann) and by various concerned members of the court (each well played by Alex Service, Kimberly Haile, Cate Hatfield and Samantha Colby). Instead, he sends messengers to the Oracle at Delphi to get proof “from the gods” of the crimes they supposedly committed.
However, before this judgment is pronounced and returned in a sealed envelope, the imprisoned Hermione gives birth to a baby girl. The hard-hearted Leontes not only spurns her “bastard,” but ignores the fervent pleas of the queen’s loyal lady in waiting, Paulina (a strong turn by Caroline McFarland), to accept the infant as her own. Instead, he commands her husband, Antigonus, to take the baby to the wilderness and leave her there to die.
During her trial for adultery and treason (and after the returned messengers bring written proof that Hermione and all-concerned are blameless), Leontes still refuses to believe the “not guilty” judgment. But, both he and his wife soon have even more reason to weep when Maxmillius, (also falsely suspected by Leontes to “not be his”), suddenly dies due to the family turmoil.
The worst is yet to come. Upon hearing her son’s unbearable news, Hermione collapses and appears to be bleeding to death as she’s helped from the courtroom back to her cell. Minutes later, Leontes is informed that she too has apparently died from grief. Stunned by what his dreadful jealousy has caused, the now-repentant monarch falls into inconsolable mourning for the innocent wife (and both heirs to the throne) he has “lost.” It’s the chilling “Winter’s Tale” of his soul.
Moreover, there’s another awful thing already set in motion that can’t be stopped: the departure of Antigonus, who has sailed away with the rejected baby to abandon her at his orders. During the journey, the upset caregiver is visited in a dream by a vision of Hermione, instructing him to take the child to Bohemia and name her Perdita, meaning “lost.”
However, on the way a fierce storm sinks the ship they’re traveling on (with salty Mariner, Waldo), but thankfully washes them up on Bohemia’s shores. And, that’s where he leaves the baby in her basket, along with a wooden box containing pieces of gold and items that identify her as a royal princess — in case she’s found before perishing.
Unfortunately for Antigonus, he’s the one soon done in by the script’s “famous, unseen” wild bear, whose fierce growls we hear before (and after) he has run offstage to be chased and “devoured” by the beast. Bye, bye, loyal protector of baby Perdita.
OK. Got that sad situation so far? Good, because the tone of the show does a complete 360-degree turn when the action resumes. Let’s just say that almost everyone “new” we meet during the rest of the show tend to be variations on the type of colorful, “flower-child hippies” found in the musical, “Hair,” who are celebrating at their own festivities with wine, women and song.
This is actually a welcome, visual relief since Rae Robison’s previous costume designs for the era have been “authentically 1960s,” but so generally unmemorable that they bring little to clearly define each character. In any case, here’s a run-down of the now “groovily attired,” eclectic, cast ensemble.
There’s Pam Service, quirky and effective as the Old Shepherd who discovers and decides to “adopt” the abandoned baby, and Adrienne Ralsten (previously seen as an Agent/Messenger) broadly playing the shepherd’s “Clownish” son. They do so gladly after opening the box, reading who she is, and (of course), pocketing the gold.
After “16 years of time passes,” we are reacquainted with this motley pair, as well as the lovely “secret princess” Perdita (pleasantly portrayed by Amelia Resendez), who is now a part of their rustic family. But, guess who turns up to fall in love with and woo her? Polixenes’ grown-up, only son (who looks nothing like him, but whatever) played with raffish charm by Ivan Gamboa.
Also around is a local shepherdess named Mopsa (Hatfield), the family Clown’s lusty new girlfriend who suspects him of having previously been “too friendly” with another, gullible country gal, Dorcas (Colby). Yet another, potential lovers’ triangle — but this time, a funny, “real one.”
Completing the cast with his energetic, entertaining (but consistently, way-over-the-top performance) as thieving conman, peddler and singing guitarist Autolycus is Morgan Cox. Previously seen as Leontes’ sinister, sun-glasses-wearing agent, in his new role, Cox needs to remember that this isn’t meant to be a “one-man” show played directly to the audience (or pulling focus away from other actors) whenever he’s on stage.
On the other hand, he’s part of the intriguing threads of the plot that start unraveling amid the plot’s welcome shift into merriment — that include Polixenes and Camillo crashing the festival “in disguise” to keep an eye on Bohemia’s future prince before he gets too serious with this lower-class (not really) shepherdess. However, when Florizel announces to the crowd he intends to marry her, his father rips off his disguise and threatens to disown him.
Luckily, Camillo is on the young lovers’ side and hatches a plan to immediately help them set sail for Sicilia (knowing that Polixenes will definitely follow). Hopefully, when they all arrive, it will finally bring about the long overdue reconciliation between the two kings. Especially once they discover one is the father of the royal groom and the other, the reunited father of a long-lost, royal daughter (whose mother’s unjust death still haunts him).
So, although a “happy wedding ending” could have potentially closed the curtain to wrap up the plot’s scenario, there’s one more surprising twist in store. Shakespeare chose to conclude his initially cold and melancholy “Winter’s Tale” with the bittersweet warmth and spring-like “rebirth” of a “lost” summer love. Thanks, we needed that.
I only wish that the technical aspects of NCRT’s production of this already, challenging classic had been more fully realized than they were to support this tantalizing story. The main negative is the near-absolute lack of a tangible scenic design to frame the action. In fact, there really is none, other than a few, movable, unnecessary, near floor-level sections that are occasionally pulled to various areas of the stage to indicate a change of location. (So, why not just play it all on the floor?) Other than that, the remaining “scenery” is nothing but black curtains hung on either side of, and behind the open stage area.
There’s also a small, movable bar with liquor decanters and glasses that some of the characters avail themselves of at times — but not often. As far as the rest of the “set pieces,” I really didn’t see any to speak of, so I want to ask scenic designer Calder Johnson, this question: Where are they?
With the exception of the colorful, clever props that he and Diana Lynn gathered for use in the festival scenes, the entire look of the production is visually bland and empty. So, shame on you. (Especially disappointing following the remarkably intricate scenic design created for the recent “Native Gardens.”)
But with, or without, the technical elements that could, or should, have been better designed and coordinated by director Hughes with Johnson in mounting this production, it does feature a number of intriguing performances to recommend it. And all of the actors involved are sure to settle more securely into their roles as the run continues.
Recognizable, popular songs of the ’60s are interspersed throughout to set the mood of the times, and Cox composed his own music that he plays and sings in character. He’s also the show’s dramaturge. Johnson designed the lighting; stage manager is Anna Gillespie, assisted by Jacob Holper. The running time is two hours with one 15-minute intermission.See “The Winter’s Tale” at NCRT through April 14. Curtain times on Fridays and Saturdays are 8 p.m. and 2 p.m. for Sunday matinees.
Tickets are $18 general and $16 for students and seniors. Purchase them online at www.ncrt.net or call 442-6278 for information and reservations. The venue is located at 300 Fifth St., Eureka.