by JK Clarke
I have always maintained that a low-budget, community theater production of a Shakespeare play, if done properly, can be as entertaining and fulfilling as a large-scale, big-ticket show. The opportunity to make a comparison of the two arose for me this week as Theater for a New City in Brooklyn debuted director Trevor Nunn’s version of Shakespeare’s Pericles (a seldom-produced, late-period, ostentatious play written only in part by the Bard), while just beyond the other side of the bridge, up on Christopher Street, the Yorick Theatre Company—a wonderful new company that provides free workshops for homeless youth in conjunction with St. John’s Church—held its premiere performance: Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. The comparison is apt, as the two plays were written in the same era and are part of Shakespeare’s “Romantic” period, whose works were cross-overs between his traditional tragedies and comedies. These plays were more grandiose, and usually involved some degree of magical realism and melodrama (and occasionally murder, which the comedies never had). What’s more, both oddly are divided by a substantial, and mysteriously specific time gap of sixteen years; both have daughter angelic daughter characters who are lost until adult, as well as wives presumed dead for the time their daughters are missing; and both feature absurdly implausible reunions.
In their original text, The Winter’s Tale is the far superior of the two plays. It has enjoyed quite a revival in the last decade or two, as this period of Shakespeare has lately come into favor in the theater world after not having been terribly popular for most of the twentieth century. It’s a simple story: a question of unprovoked, unreasonable jealousy that leads a man to ruinous self-sabotage. Leontes, King of Sicilia (an intense, convincing Chris Johnson), suddenly decides, outside of all reason, that he is being cuckolded by his wife Hermione (a terrific Jenne Vath) and his best friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Michael Brian Ogden). In a rage he orders one of his lords, Camillo (Tiffanie Abercombie) to murder Polixenes, which Camillo cannot do, and together they flee for Bohemia; then Leontes has Hermione jailed. Stressed by the turmoil, his young son Mamillius (Matt Baxter Luceno) falls ill and dies, as does his mother in childbirth. The child, later aptly named Perdita (whom he falsely believes illegitimate), he at first considers killing, but then banishes to a faraway place. In but a few brief moments of theater, Leontes’ paranoia has completely demolished his own world—and without reason, he is soon told by the Oracle of Delphi. Meanwhile, Antigonus (Beth Dodye Bass), a nobleman, spirits Perdita away to the shores of Bohemia and abandons her, immediately after which he is chased off-stage (as per one of the most famous stage directions in the history of theater) “ . . . pursued by a bear” (brilliantly performed here). We are subsequently informed by the shepherds who find the babe and the treasures he left with her, that Antigonus has perished horribly in the jaws of said bear. Thus ends the dour, dark first act.
The second act, which is designed to be of enormous emotional contrast, is kicked off by the Chorus (delightfully played by Johnson, with a clock stuck to his head) who tells us that sixteen years have passed since intermission. And here the tragedy turns into a comedy. Punctuated by the bumbling shepherds and a love affair between a Florizel, son to Polixenes, and a teenaged Perdita (Maude Lardner Burke), who has attracted the prince most likely through the royal blood coursing through her veins. Director Everett Quinton has deftly truncated the play so that the second act, long-winded in the original text, is swift, though without losing any elements essential to the story. The second act features one of Shakespeare’s great clowns, the cut-purse and con-man Autolycus, played to perfection by Quinton, who mines all of the character’s slapstick and witty potential that jibes perfectly with his clever wordplay, as he cajoles with the audience. Quinton plays Autolycus better than anyone of the many I’ve seen.
The story begins to wrap as the Bohemian king, despite being far more level-headed than his erstwhile green-eyed friend, doesn’t want his son hooking up with (what he believes is) a country-bumpkin girl, and tries to impose. But the couple elope to Sicily, meet with Leontes and, after much confusion, provoke a grand reunion between all parties, with all feuds resolved; and, what’s more, Queen Hermione turns out—in a creative reveal that forces the audience to turn and look down the aisle of the theater as they would at a bride’s procession—not to be dead after all. It’s beyond far-fetched, but touching and sweet. So the audience forgives.
What makes this production of The Winter’s Tale work so well is not an elaborate set or a state-of-the-art theater; no, the theater is St. John’s Lutheran Church in the West Village, as austere a church as one can find. The play is even performed with the house lights up, in fact. Ramona Ponce’s costumes, clearly made on a budget (for this is a small, new company), are often inventive, but always functional. Otherwise, it’s a no-frills production. Instead, what makes this play work, first and foremost, is the company’s command of the material and their pure joy in performing it. This is community theater at its finest. With that step conquered, Shakespeare takes it the rest of the way. Sure, there’s an elaborate Shakespeare play in that other borough, but for a fraction of the price Yorick Theatre Company offers perhaps an even more substantial return. Theater Pizzazz looks forward to many more such wonderful productions and applauds Yorick Theater Company for its work in the community. We wish them well.
The Winter’s Tale. Through February 28 (today at 7.30 PM will be the final performance) at St. John’s Lutheran Church (81 Christopher Street between Seventh Avenue and Bleecker Street. Tickets: https://www.artful.ly/store/events/8019 and for more information about Yorick Theatre Company, contact Matthew Drennan at email@example.com