SHAKESPEARE WAS IN a retrospective mood when he wrote that problematic play The Winter's Tale: just about every theme he ever visited ends up in it, from Romeo and Juliet to The Tempest. It's a curious play, because however retrospective it is it seems unresolved, resolutely so. It ends happily, I suppose, but with lingering sadness. And however unlikely its plot may be, however distant from our own experience, it's one of those plays that always leaves me thinking Yes. That's how it is, all right. Nothing to be done about it.
Last weekend we saw it for the third time in eighteen months: Ashland in July '06; Glendale (A Noise Within) six weeks ago; Healdsburg last Saturday. In many ways the Healdsburg production was the most affecting.
It was staged by the Imagination Foundation, a Healdsburg company whose chief activity is the production of community theater using children and teen-aged actors for the most part. We've followed them pretty closely over the last few years, as one of our granddaughters has been with them from their beginning (this was the first production she has not appeared in. We've seen Pinocchio, The Tempest, Antigone, an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, The Crucible, Tonight we Improvise! (Pirandello), and an adaptation of Animal Farm, just to list the more or less standard repertory; along the way there have been imaginative and resourceful productions of other pieces often generated through collective improvisation in rehearsals.
These "Imagineers" have produced some strong theater — work whose strength comes from its return of theater to its community responsibility. Theater is more than entertainment; at its best it presents its audience with a kind of collective awareness, expression, and even resolution of urges and events that are general and immediate. Last September, for example, IF presented The Division/La División, a piece that cast children and seniors from the Healdsburg community in an investigation of both the separateness and the togetherness that can characterize its "anglo" and "hispanic" subcommunities. A short documentary of that production is available on YouTube.
The Winter's Tale was staged, literally, on the stage of Healdsburg's Raven Theater, a community theater that's been carved out of a former movie theater, a place with problematic acoustics and not terribly good sightlines. IF overcame these problems by ignoring the audience space: instead we sat in chairs on the stage, providing the three walls of a theater-within-a-theater, with the cast right in our faces, no sets or props and minimal (though effective) costuming.
The play is really two plays, as I blogged last month. In the first Leontes, king of Sicily, goes completely insane with jealousy, causing the death of his son and queen and forcing a trusted retainer to expose his infant daughter to her death. In the second "play," usually done as the second act, we're suddenly transported from Sicilian courtiers to Bohemian country-bumpkins; Time has skipped sixteen years or so; and the plot begins to play itself out through the usual unravellings.
The play is about anger, comprehension, atonement, and forgiveness; that is, it's about fundamental human qualities that resist rational explanation but drive most human situations, whether court or country. And the play's effectiveness, apart from Shakespeare's splendid language, rests on the abilities of its major characters. Here the Imagineers came through: though minor characters had trouble with memory, clarity, and comprehension — not surprisingly, given their assignment! — the principals were amazingly effective. They may be students, or barely out of school, but they show an astounding degree of understanding: of the text, of their craft; of the emotions and urges that drive this troubling play.
There were only three performances. Imagine: young actors in their teens memorizing and rehearsing this play, all of it, this well, for only three performances. It was a gift to the community, another in a long line of such gifts. I do believe the Imagination Foundation is one of the most significant theatrical organizations in the Bay Area.