Monday, September 10, 2007

Review of "The Winter's Tale" published by EDGE Philadelphia

Philadelphia theatres have closed their doors for summer, enabling some of the area’s best actors to join theatre professionals from around the country at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, where productions rarely fail to dazzle. Their 2007 season opens with Shakespeare’s seldom produced, misleading described as a comedy, yet thoroughly compelling, The Winter’s Tale.

When "all’s true that is mistrusted," jealousy spirals into vicious paranoia as King Leontes suspects his pregnant wife Hermione of infidelity with his childhood friend Polixenes. In his madness, Leontes plots Polixenes murder, denies his son’s parentage, imprisons Hermione, and banishes their newborn daughter Perdita. After a mock trial condemns his wife of treason, the son commits suicide, Hermione dies of grief, and these tragedies shock Leontes back to reason. Chastened by guilt, Leontes devotes his life’s remainder to celibacy and repentance, threatening the future of his kingdom.

Scholars consider The Winter’s Tale one of Shakespeare’s "problem plays" with good reason, as the play seems like a younger Shakespeare, working out elements he later perfected. The first half differs in content, theme, and balance from an episodic second half that appears more modern than Elizabethan. Act One spans a few months, focusing on the tragedy of self-prophesized imaginings, where misapprehension leads to destructive behavior, the effects of which only serve to confirm earlier delusions. Act Two skips sixteen years during intermission, becoming at once light and romantic comedy. Here, the exiled Perdita has grown to discover true love with Florizel, Polixenes’ son. Only forgiveness and past outrage bar their happiness, and through several hastily thrown together episodes, contrition and repentance lead once more to amity amongst the lives Leontes nearly destroyed.

Compounding the play’s structural defects, The Winter’s Tale mixes many themes that by themselves unify earlier works-the battle of the sexes, jealousy and infidelity, justice, guilt, and redemption. However, unlike Measure for Measure, Macbeth, Othello, or The Taming of the Shrew, The Winter’s Tale plumbs greater psychological depths along these moral lines, as Shakespeare intensifies these themes by concentrating them all in the actions and consequences of one character, Leontes. This results in a psychologically compelling first act, filled with pessimistic despair, which yields to Act Two’s optimistic (and surprise) ending, one that balances the consequences of unintended tragedy with the hope that one can finally absolve themselves of past deeds. In this regard, the sixteen-year gap between the acts allows a passage of time that buries Leontes’ past sins, without which no audience member would accept a greater or earlier redemption.

But the uplifting ending, unbalanced against and seemingly tacked on to the tragedy of Act One, still presents difficulties for any director or production. Luckily, the cast and production give ample reason to think that Shakespeare knew what he was doing.

Greg Wood, though giving no explicit reason for Leontes jealousy, dives headfirst into his character’s madness. Speaking lines in frenzied bursts of rage and anguish, deteriorating physically in gait and posture, he dominates the play’s first half in a masterful portrait of the delusions suffered by anyone who ever suspected that his neighbor "fished his pond in his absence." A Philadelphia favorite, appearing in his 20th PSF show this summer, Wood gives one of the finest and most penetrating performances of his career as a King wracked first by suspicion, later humiliated in contrition by guilt.

If Wood presents the ideal, the rest of the cast proves an equally capable reach. In multiple roles, Tony Lawton and Wayne S. Turney convey humor and humanity, and newcomer Erin Partin charms as the exiled Perdita. Only Anne Lewis gets and gives the chance to equal Wood as Paulina, the lone member of court brave enough to challenge his irrational behavior. Though she easily captures the humor in her role as an outspoken woman among submissive men, she commits to the play’s surprise ending in a strained voice that implies something less than the aggrieved and righteous outrage warranted by the deaths Leontes causes. A minor deficit in her performance, she nonetheless proves that occasionally, truth must yield to dramatic effect.

Director Patrick Mulcahy speeds three hours of staging through a production that contrasts Steve TenEyck’s terrifying lighting that mirrors Leontes obsession against Bob Phillips’ sumptuous, pastel-rich set that proves the reality his suspicions deny. Mulcahy’s only error lies in allowing Lawton to frame the play’s halves in playful audience interaction, then in the same breath trying to convince us that a shaman’s spell causes the misery-producing delusion that follows. While amusing, these unnecessary flourishes only added incoherence to a play where directors need to focus more on surmounting existing difficulties rather than creating them.

However, Mulcahy far more than redeems this minor fault in an ending that effects one of the most fantastical and moving scenes I’ve witnessed on PSF’s stage. This exhilarating moment of redemption-for both Leontes who needs it, and a production that needs none-makes the journey to Allentown worth the trip, from removes far beyond Philadelphia.

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