Monday, February 17, 2020

The Winter’s Tale (A Noise Within’s 2020 Production) Theatre Review

production photo by Craig Schwartz
When we think of Shakespeare and jealousy, most of us think first of the title character from Othello. But Leontes in The Winter’s Tale is also driven to murder because of a jealous streak. But whereas Othello’s jealousy is aroused deliberately by a character out to destroy him, Leontes’ jealousy is due to something unstable in his own character, a defect in his view of women. A Noise Within’s new production of The Winter’s Tale focuses on Leontes’ breakdown and ultimate redemption. This production sets the play in the early part of the twentieth century, and features some excellent performances, particularly by Trisha Miller as Hermione, Deborah Strang as Paulina and Frederick Stuart as Leontes.

Before the performance begins, the stage is bathed in blue and white light, the stage having the look of marble, with several dark veins running through it. Two sets of columns are positioned upstage. And as the play begins, images of large snowflakes falling are projected on the backdrop and columns. It is rather beautiful. As the actors enter, there is a sense of celebration, of joviality. Two men engage in a playful fencing contest, and it is soon revealed that they are the two kings – Leontes and Polixenes (Brian Ibsen). So it is quickly established that these two are great friends, that their company is not due simply to matters of state. When Hermione is encouraged to use her charms to convince Polixenes to extend his stay, she playfully employs the fencing foils, which keeps the mood light and joyous, a nice touch, for it immediately shows her part in the friendship. Hermione and Polixenes move downstage for their conversation, while Leontes watches from center stage (between two drink carts). This production employs some interesting use of sound. For example, there is a low rumbling leading to Leontes’ “Too hot, too hot,” the moment when his jealousy rises. It is like we are in his head, the blood rushing, changing our perceptions of the action. Leontes is not just distrustful of his own wife, but of wives in general, as he makes clear in his speech, using the audience as examples. Leontes indicates specific audience members on “holds his wife by the arm,” and then a nearby audience member becomes his “neighbor.” Is it like he is trying to prove that his own sudden burst of jealousy is not only warranted, but should be adopted by men all around. Here Leontes has a formal, reserved demeanor and manner, which works well in contrast to the cauldron of jealousy bubbling up inside him. It is as if he is still trying to keep it in check. And lights on the stage floor create a series of bars as Leontes goes farther into his rant, a prisoner of his own fixation, his own error. Alcohol is also used as a prop to show Leontes’ mental unraveling. In the scene where Paulina brings the baby to him, we find him seated in the rocking chair with a drink. In that scene, he drinks after “within my power,” as if drawing traces of strength and resolve from it. He is magnificent in that scene. After his child is placed in the crib, he takes a moment to look at it before howling “Out!” It is as if for a moment his humanity was struggling to return.

Camillo is played by Jeremy Rabb, who was wonderful as Roderigo in last year’s production of Othello. Here he gives another excellent performance. He is particularly good in the scene where Leontes charges him with dispatching Polixenes. He seems sincere when he finally agrees to Leontes’ plan. Then, when Leontes exits, his demeanor changes before he delivers the speech revealing his true feelings to us in the audience. And he sits at the edge of the stage, almost like the conversation with Leontes and the task he is saddled with have sapped his strength, a nice touch. His demeanor changes yet again when Polixenes enters. Trisha Miller (who was phenomenal as Goneril in the 2017 production of King Lear) also turns in an excellent performance as Hermione. On her line “You thus have publish’d me,” she grows quieter, even looking around before the word “publish’d,” as if now realizing her reputation is stained. Her delivery of “I never wish’d to see you sorry; now/I trust I shall” is incredibly moving. Her trial is done in an interesting way. Two sets of stairs become a platform center stage, above which hangs a microphone. The court has a military atmosphere, which gives the scene a more frightening and oppressive vibe, the red lights adding to that sense. Hermione is fantastic in this scene. Of course, giving Shakespeare’s work a more modern setting always introduces some problems. In this production, the only major problem caused by the modern setting is that it makes the whole business about Apollo and the oracle somewhat odd and unbelievable. Still, because of the performances, the scene has power. Leontes shouts, “There is no truth at all i’ the oracle,” but it is clear he is broken now, and then the immediate news of his son’s death causes the queen’s collapse and Leontes’ sudden repentance. Paulina, for her speech, takes the spot on the platform, causing Leontes to shrink, to descend a few steps, creating a powerful and meaningful stage picture.

In many ways Paulina (Deborah Strang) is the true moral center of the production. She is true to herself and to others at all times, never letting fear dictate her course. When she tries to visit Hermione in prison, she ends up giving poor Emilia (Katie Rodriguez) her scarf and gloves, showing her concern for others outweighs her concern for herself. Her final line of that scene, “I will stand betwixt you and danger,” is spoken a second time in this production, to the baby in her arms. Her line to Leontes, “I’ll not call you tyrant,” along with other lines about tyranny cannot help but call to mind our current political troubles. Her husband, Antigonus (Alan Blumenfeld), is also quite good, especially in the scene where Paulina brings the baby to Leontes.

Mamillius (Jayce Evans) plays an important part in this production. The first scene of Act II is set in the nursery, where he is dressed as a bear, and carrying a teddy bear in his satchel for good measure. For those who are not already familiar with this play, it contains perhaps the most famous of all of Shakespeare’s stage directions: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” So this bit of costuming is a playful reference to the bear’s later entrance. It also connects him to the character of Antigonus, who is killed by that bear. When Antigonus enters with the baby, Hermione and Mamillus appear in white as ghosts between the columns upstage. That, of course, is a bit odd, since Hermione is not actually dead. Rather than having Antigonus recount what Hermione said to him in his dream, as in the text, we hear her voice speak the lines. It is striking, but doesn’t feel quite right. She then exits, but the boy remains, wearing a white bear outfit. But, don’t worry, he is not the bear that chases Antigonus. Once Antigonus has been pursued off stage, the boy steps forward to look at the baby, and that is when the intermission comes.

The Winter’s Tale is considered a problematic play for several reasons, one of which is the change in tone which occurs at the end of the third act. It is a pretty serious drama up until that point, then becomes a comedy. This production chooses to place its intermission at the moment of change (rather than, say, just a bit later during the sixteen-year gap), which actually works quite well, for it gives the actor playing Antigonus the opportunity to also play the Shepherd. So he both leaves the child and retrieves her, which is lovely. Mamillius is present, seeming to guide the Shepherd to the baby, essentially taking care of his baby sister. That sixteen-year gap is also handled really well in this production. The character of Time enters during the storm, carrying an umbrella. The moment she suddenly closes her umbrella, the storm ceases, and she begins her speech. As she talks of Perdita, now grown, she becomes that character, a wonderful touch. Bohemia has a brighter and more appealing look, thanks to green backdrops and red flowers hanging between them. And when the other shepherds enter, they are celebrating and most are masked, creating an interesting rustic variation of the play’s opening.

Alan Blumenfeld does a wonderful job as the Shepherd, and the fondness and love he feels for his adopted daughter are apparent particularly in his delivery of “So she does anything,” a sweet moment. It feels like quite a bit is cut from the Bohemia scenes, including the character of Autolycus. Because Autolycus is cut, and so too the scene with him and the gentlemen, this production has to create a new way for the audience to see that Leontes has learned of his daughter’s identity, and it is done with a brief moment in which Leontes recognizes the scarf she dons. It feels a bit rushed for so important a moment. But then again, in the text, we only learn of it from the conversation of other characters. That scene with the gentlemen also contains talk of the statue of Hermione, so with it missing, the visit to the statue also feels a bit rushed. We need to hear of the statue before Leontes, Perdita and the others go to see it. That being said, the moment when Hermione is revealed, and she is reunited with Leontes and their daughter, is perfect and touching, and likely to bring a tear to your eye.

This production of The Winter’s Tale was directed by Geoff Elliott. It runs through April 11th. Visit A Noise Within’s website for the complete schedule. There is one fifteen-minute intermission, which comes partway through Act III Scene iii. A Noise Within is located at 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena, California.

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