The Winter’s Tale is not the easiest of Shakespeare’s plays to stage. It must believably present a story sharply divided into two parts set in two different countries with drastically contrasting tones, and pull off an ending that resolves them by way of magic or a well-concealed plot, based on whichever point of view the director takes. The violence of the first half of the play in Sicilia (winter) melts away in the pastoral beauty of Bohemia (spring) in the second, where the story continues sixteen years later before reuniting the past and present and absolving the sins of a repentant king.
In Sicilia, King Leontes (Thomas Bigley) has accused his pregnant wife Hermione (Kate O’Toole) of sleeping with his best friend, Polixenes (Evan Isaac Lipkin), King of Bohemia. The good queen is innocent but there is no reasoning with Leontes, who places her on trial and sets out to have his friend murdered and the child destroyed. His rashness results in the deaths of his firstborn son Mamillius (Sasha Pasternak), Hermione, and even his loyal servant, Antigonus (Sean Faye), who is mauled to death offstage following one of Shakespeare’s most famous stage directions, “Exit pursued by a bear.”
How a company handles the bear is always part of the anticipation of seeing the play for it is at this moment that the story moves from tragedy to comedy and every director stages it differently. Jesse James Thomas directs it with an actor racing across the stage in a bear costume roaring like a kid playing dress up. The choice is appropriately silly and serves to cast off the heaviness of the previous scenes, leaving the audience laughing as intermission begins.
Once back, however, the promise of comedy to come and the vitality of spring never really find their footing. The exception is the maypole dance (choreographed by Taylor Fisher) at the sheep shearing festival which is a lovely celebration with masks and original (?) Balkan-flavored music by Nick Neidorf. Neidorf and his musicians are positioned at the back of the stage but I would have liked to have seen them downstage to more fully appreciate the energy they bring to the scene.
Neidorf’s music and other sound cues, and Alex Parker’s set design, which consists of pages of cursive text from The Winter’s Tale lining the walls, creatively establish the play’s story book setting within the limitations of an intimate theater.
The actors vary in their approach to the text with few observing the verse as written, and many racing through their scenes so quickly that performances rarely go beneath surface level. The verse is often thrown away and the prose gets mired in the comic characters’ over-the-top delivery which undermines the humor. Dramatic characters, for the most part, embody a single quality – angry, earnest, and worried are the typical go-to sentiments in Sicilia – and rarely veer from their main emotion. A stronger directorial hand would modulate the play’s intricacies to better effect and ensure that character choices serve the overall arc of the play.
Though The Porters do not break any new ground with this production of The Winter’s Tale, many of its weaknesses are forgiven the moment the statue is revealed in the final act. That bit of “magic” always casts a spell on the audience and it does so here as well. For that one shining moment, we almost believe in fairy tales.
Shakespeare in LA
THE WINTER’S TALE
October 18 – November 15, 2014
The Actors Forum Theatre
10655 Magnolia Blvd
North Hollywood, CA 91601
Information line/voice mail (818) 325-2055
Run time: approximately two hours with one intermission.