The Winter's Tale
At Hartford Stage
By: Karen Isaacs - May 02, 2023
Shakespeare is in good hands at Hartford Stage based on Melia Bensussen’s direction of The Winter Tale. The theater has a long history of outstanding Shakespeare productions directed by its artistic directors. It runs through Sunday, May 7
The Winter’s Tale can be a confusing play. Written late in Shakespeare’s career, it is usually grouped with The Tempest, Pericles, and Cymbeline, as one of the “romance” plays. While it contains some characteristics of the others, it also starts on a much darker note. These plays all deal with forgiveness and reconciliation.
The Winter’s Tale has a radical change in tone: the first part of the play seems tragic as King Leontes becomes convinced his pregnant wife Hermione has been unfaithful with his best friend, King Polixenes who has been visiting. By the intermission, Leontes has tried to kill Leontes, imprisoned Hermione, ordered his newborn daughter to be abandoned, and learned that his son and Hermione have each died. To add to the Greek tragedy overtones, the oracle at Delphi proclaims the falsehood of all his accusations.
But the second half of the play is more comic as we see what happened sixteen years later. We start in Bohemia, where a shepherd and his son had found the baby and raised it.
Bensussen has cut characters from the play, most notably in the Bohemia section, where the shepherd’s son has a romance among various rustic happenings. The Bohemia characters are part of the Shakespeare tradition of including clowns or madmen in even the darkest play. Eliminating some characters helps keep the play moving (it is two-and-a-half hours) and focuses attention on the main characters.
In the play, Shakespeare had ‘Time” announce the jump to Bohemia, sixteen years later. Rather than “Time” announcing this, Bensussen has Autolycus (Pearl Rhein) appear throughout the play; she provides commentary, plays the violin, and, in one hilarious scene is the pickpocket/swindler that steals from the shepherds at a festival.
As in most Shakespeare plays, these rural characters were meant to appeal directly to the “groundlings,” the ordinary people who paid to stand in front of the stage while the nobles sat in covered balconies.
True to romances, all ends well with the help of a little magic. Those we assume are dead emerge alive, lovers are united, and all is forgiven.
Bensussen uses the King’s son to open the play, holding a snow globe; Hermione asks him to tell her a merry tale. Her son replies” A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one/Of sprites and goblins.”
This plus the bare tree at the center of the stage sets the scene. Scenic designer, Cameron Anderson makes good use of the large Hartford Stage playing area. It moves easily from the courts of Leontes and Polixenes to the rural countryside. One puzzling aspect was what appeared to be sand dunes at the back of the stage, though perhaps it was meant to be snow. In act two, it made more sense since the area was covered with yellow flowers, representing the rebirth of spring..
The costumes by Whitney Locher move between periods and status. They hint at both Greek apparel and Elizabethan style, which is appropriate given the references to the oracle at Delphi and the Greek influence of the names of many characters.
Evan Anderson designed the lighting and Pornchanok Kanchanabanca composed the original music and the sound design. At times, when characters were turned away from you, it was hard to hear.
One of the most famous stage directions of all time occurs in Shakespeare’s act three (his plays are always in five acts) but here at the end of the first half. The direction says that Antigonus, who has delivered the baby to Bohemia, “exits pursued by a bear.” Directors have found creative ways to illustrate that; Bensussen follows that tradition; there is no bear, just sound and lighting to suggest the death of Antigonus.
Standouts in the cast include Pearl Rhein, as the musician, commentator, and scamp. She moves easily among these roles as well as playing several instruments.
Nathan Darrow makes for a stern and unyielding Leontes before becoming a broken man; Jamie Ann Romero brings clarity and dignity to the role of the wronged Hermione while Lana Young is excellent as Paulina who is not afraid to confront the king. In Bohemia, Omar Robinson and Daniel Davila, Jr are King Polixenes and his son, Florizel.
Jeremy Webb and John Maddaloni are the shepherd and his son; it is they who are most responsible for the humor.
As Perdita, the abandoned daughter, Delfin Gökhan Meehan imbues this character with a sense of nobility. I’ve often wondered if her name, Perdita, refers to the religious concept of Perdition; certainly, she and her parents spend sixteen years there.
This excellent production gives everyone a chance to see a Shakespeare play that is only occasionally produced. For tickets, visit HartfordStage.org
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