Thursday, October 03, 2013

A Winter's Tale

A Winter's Tale. By William Shakespeare, directed by Patricia McGregor. Orinda: California Shakespeare Theater; seen September 26, 2013.
Eastside Road, October 3, 2013—
COMPARISONS BEING ODOROUS, as Dogberry says, I won't bring up productions of Shakespeare recently seen in Ashland here: I'm writing today about a very different order of things.

A Winter's Tale, one of Shakespeare's more problematic plays, was formerly rarely given, but seems to have become popular: we've seen it now five times in the last six years. Two main difficulties may have been responsible for its long retreat from the stage: the unprompted and violent swings of mood in the principle character, Leontes; and the alternations of high tragedy and low comedy, which tend to tear the play apart in uncalibrated productions. Like Cymbeline, the play's an example of Shakespeare's idiosyncratic combination of realism and abstraction.

As so often, he examines in this play the effect of a sudden loss of reality: a rage, or a colossal error, or an unforeseen coincidence — a chance calamity that changes everything for everyone, bystanders as well as perpetrators, the innocent as well as (or even more than) the "guilty." But what are the perpetrators guilty of ? in most cases, they too are the victims of the kind of exception that follows when the natural order of things takes a sudden, inexplicable swerve. Everything in Shakespeare's world — his natural world and that of his society — is tenuous.

Patricia McGregor's direction of the play had its merits and its flaws. For me, on reflection, the flaws outweighed the merits: particularly the idea of involving the audience through direct address from the stage, even invitations to participate on the stage. As the play opened, a traveling band of players, acrobats, and fortune-tellers, looking vaguely medieval but with diction recalling Second City improv routines and accompanied by an Airstream-like camper-trailer, cajoled the audience into banter which recurred at the beginning of the second act and returned at the close. This seemed miscalculated in the outdoors amphitheater, colder than any Winter's Tale needs for its setting.

But another directorial concept worked amazingly well: the cast was collapsed onto a seven-actor ensemble with every role double-cast. This streamlined the scenes in Bohemia, which can lapse into irrelevant clowning, losing the play's drive toward its final stroke and resolution; it also very neatly underscored the schizophrenia at the heart of Shakespeare's vision.

Nowhere better than in the amazing performance of L. Peter Callender as both Leontes, who directs the abandonment of his infant daughter on a coastal rock in Bohemia, and the Shepherd who finds her and raises her as his own child. He found deep humanity in each of these roles, and nicely detailed individuality as well; but the two characters are so different it was hard to force myself to realize they were played by a single actor.

The same can be said for Omoze Idehenre, who played both the wronged queen Hermione and the lovestruck shepherdess Mopsa; and for Tristan Cunningham, both Perdita and Emilia; and Christopher Michael Rivera, who was a noble Antigonus, a conniving Autolycus. Aldo Billingslea, Margo Hall, and Tyee Tilghman round out the cast.

Most of the cast had played in a previous Cal Shakes production this season, Spunk: we didn't see that show (though it sounded promising), but apparently it too involved audience participation and an all or nearly-all black cast. It may have worked better, presenting material closer to the experience of today's audience.

On the other hand, having seen that production may have helped the audience at A Winter's Tale. I myself, knowing the play from its script and from previous more conventional productions, found the framing device irrelevant and distracting, even confusing at times. The reduced cast made it necessary to cut and collapse much of the fourth act, set in Bohemia; and to skip the first scene of the fifth act, since virtually Shakespeare's entire cast is assembled. Here again the traveling players try to explain matters to the audience; here again I find myself in a state of confusion.

I should concede that we saw the production in a preview; some production elements were clearly not completely resolved. In the last analysis, though, I think few modern adapters and presenters of Shakespeare calibrate the play-to-audience configuration better than does the Bard himself, and I wish more contemporary productions would trust his book.

But much of the time I was gripped by the rage, the jealousy, the love, the remorse, the understanding, and the forgiveness that animate this marvelous play. The reason for this is simple: the power of Shakespeare's words, and the clarity and conviction of the actors' speech. A number of moments will stay with me.

A Winter's Talecontinues at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, Orinda, through October 20, 2013.

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