Tuesday, February 13, 2024

The Winter’s Tale (Antaeus Theatre Company’s 2024 Production) Theatre Review

The Winter’s Tale deals with matters of jealousy and trust, regret and forgiveness, themes that are universal and timeless. Yet because of some elements, the play works best when set in the distant past, or a fanciful past, when oracles and gods held sway. And that is the setting of the new production put on by the Antaeus Theatre Company and directed by Elizabeth Swain, who gave us an excellent production of Hamlet in 2022. This production has a fairly simple set, with a series of monochromatic curtains upstage, and features a talented cast. Especially remarkable are the performances by Adam J. Smith as Leontes, Kaci Hamilton as Hermione, and Paul Eiding as the Shepherd.

As the play begins, some music provides a magical touch, and the characters enter, engaging in a dance. It’s an interesting opening, because most of the first portion of the play has a rather somber and even intense vibe, while the second section has the lighter feel and features dancing. So the addition of the brief dance here provides a connection between the two tones, and helps to establish a cheery atmosphere, one we hope to return to by the end. When Hermione enters, she is clearly pregnant, her hands resting on her belly. While she and Polixenes (Ned Mochel) speak, Leontes is at first facing upstage, away from them, helping to set up the notion that he could believe more might have been occurring between them. Hermione is delightful in playfully asking for words of praise from her husband. At this point, Leontes seems happy. But when Hermione takes the hand of Polixenes on the word “friend,” Leontes erupts in jealousy, delivering his “Too hot, too hot” to the audience. It is such a sudden turn that the jealousy and distrust must have already been within him, and Adam J. Smith does a great job of showing that. He also shows how torn he is, plagued with uncertainty, something a king must not display in front of others. A king must be decisive in all things, or so he believes. And we sense it is that, in addition to his jealousy, that plays a part in his hasty actions. It’s all very exciting to see this play out in his expressions, as when he asks his son, “Art thou my calf?” We hear the uncertainty, the worry in his voice. Suddenly nothing is certain to him. His son, in a bit of cross-gender casting, is played by Sabrina J. Liu. The problem is she looks absolutely nothing like either him or Hermione, so that when Leontes suddenly wonders if his son is really his son, we in the audience can’t help but side with him. The lack of resemblance gives weight to Leontes’ accusations and jealousy. Clearly his son is not his son. It’s best to cast someone who closely resembles the actor playing Leontes, so that we see how much his jealousy has warped his thinking. Still, the scene is gripping, and Adam J. Smith does a fantastic job. On his final urging of his son to “Go play,” he embraces him, a touching moment, and in contrast to earlier deliveries of the line.

There is another great moment after Leontes exits, when Camillo (Geoffrey Wade) physically reacts to what has just transpired, trying to shake it from his person. Then when Polixenes re-enters, his countenance has changed. The levity is gone. His line “I must be answer’d” is delivered with intensity, but without raising his voice, as if he is nervous of being overheard. Both Geoffrey Wade and Ned Mochel shine in this exchange. When Leontes learns that Camillo has left with Polixenes, he believes Camillo has betrayed him. He is completely unraveling now. Hermione then stands in some contrast to him, though she is in a more precarious position. And how right she is when she predicts that this will come to grieve Leontes. We hear the concern and love for her husband when she tells him, “I never wish’d to see you sorry; now I trust I shall.” There is strength and sadness in her delivery. And again her prediction will prove accurate. Kaci Hamilton is so good here. And Paul Eiding is excellent as the jailer (several of the cast play multiple roles), especially as he decides whether to allow Hermione’s baby out of the prison.

When we next see Leontes, on his “Nor night, nor day, no rest,” he holds his belly with one hand, which is interesting, as it draws a connection to Hermione. When she did it, it was the joy of pregnancy; when he does it, it is due to ache and stress. And he is conflicted with regards to the baby. He clearly wants to hold the infant, but doesn’t take her, only accepting her when Paulina hands her to him. Ann Noble delivers a compelling performance as Paulina. Her confidence is exciting, as when on her “but needful conference,” she shoots a look as if to say she is getting her way and expected nothing less. However, when she says “We are gone” and extends a hand to her husband, Antigonus (Brian Kim McCormick) does not take it. She sadly does not get her way there. And when the Lord (Peter Mendoza) beseeches Leontes “that you do change this purpose,” the word “change” is stressed, which is nice, for change, or transformation, is an important element of the play. During the trial scene, Leontes wears a cape. He speaks to the audience, making us part of the proceedings. And while Leontes is in his best clothing, Hermione is not. She wears a soiled shift, and enters slowly. By her walk, we know she has suffered and is weak. She does such a tremendous job that we in the audience want to rush to assist her. Yet when she speaks, her own royal bearing comes forth. Her speech is sure and true, which is moving. When the words of the oracle are read, there is a pause before “Leontes a jealous tyrant,” as the Lord fears the king’s reaction. And there is a moment when those in the audience are as relieved by the Oracle’s words as those on stage are. But then Leontes dares to disregard the words of the Oracle. As soon as he does, bad things happen, and Leontes falls to his knees, realizing his error. It is then that Paulina enters to report on Hermione’s death. It’s an interesting decision on her part to deceive the king and to carry on the deception for a long time, particularly as Leontes has already come to believe in his wife’s honor. It is like Paulina wishes to punish him. She really takes a lot onto her own shoulders at this moment. The entire plot, really. What is particularly striking in this scene is that Paulina is surprised that Leontes has truly changed.

The Winter’s Tale contains William Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear.” There is always the question of how that moment will be approached by each new production, and there is always some anticipation among those in the audience who know it’s coming. It should be frightening, so a man in a bear suit (unless it’s particularly good and lifelike suit) doesn’t often work. Here the chase is done behind the white curtain, which then turns red. It is quick and eerie, the bear seeming like a monster, and it’s effective. That is the end of Antigonus, and the entry of the Shepherd, played by Paul Eiding, who uses a walking stick for this role. He is adorable upon finding Perdita, as he says “pretty one,” and quite funny on “some behind-door-work.” And then sixteen years pass, and the tone is much lighter, as we enter the pastoral setting of the play’s fourth act. That great change in tone is one of the challenging elements of the play, but it helps that the intermission is placed between the two sections. The cast embraces the sense of fun of this part of the play, and even Polixenes is excited about taking part, disguising himself in order to learn what his son has been up to. Camillo humorously shakes his head at the idea, but goes along with it. Peter Mendoza, who last summer was wonderful as Ferdinand in The Tempest, has a similar appeal as Florizel. Of course, the character who seems to get the most enjoyment here is Autolycus, played by JD Cullum, who last year gave us a terrific Caliban and here delivers another delightful performance. In fact, he enters singing and playing guitar. He again later plays guitar, and others join him in song, creating a great air of celebration. He is perhaps at his best when delighting in his own deeds, and when claiming to be a courtier.

Though much of this section of the play is humorous, what is most striking and memorable is the reunion of Leontes with Hermione and Perdita (Shannon Lee Clair). Hermione, presented as a statue, stands on the same pedestal upon which she stood during her trial, though now her posture is much different. It’s interesting, because it was upon that pedestal that she entered a darkness, and it is upon it that she emerges from it. The reunion of the family is incredibly touching, and the performance leaves the audience feeling optimistic about humanity.

This production of The Winter’s Tale runs through March 11, 2024. Visit the company’s website for the complete schedule. There is one intermission, which comes at the end of Act III. Antaeus Theatre Company performs at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, located at 110 East Broadway in Glendale, California.

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