by: JK Clarke
No one anticipates an onslaught of madness. When it comes, it’s swift and sudden, taking everyone (even its originator) by surprise, often with devastating results. And when you open a play with such a fit, as in William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (now playing at The Pearl Theatre, in association with The Shakespeare Society), it immediately sends the action careening off in unexpected directions.
The madness in this case is of King Leontes of Sicily (Peter Francis James), when he unreasonably begins to suspect his graceful and flawless queen, Hermione (Jolly Abraham), of adultery with his best friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia (a very able Bradford Cover). In a wild bout of insanity-driven impulse, he jumps from suspicion to action, plotting to kill his friend and jailing his pregnant wife. Even more shockingly, he banishes his daughter (whom he believes a bastard) shortly after she is born, to the wilds, left to be consumed by the elements and wild beasts.
Even for Shakespeare, this is a far-flung premise, and its resolution is even more improbable: after a passage of sixteen years his daughter, who has been raised by shepherds in Polixenes’ Bohemian kingdom, meets and falls in love with that king’s son. Meanwhile, Leontes has come to repent his moment of lunacy, and lives in everlasting mourning of his lost family. The play is divided into two distinct halves (pure embodiments of the Greek masks used to symbolize Theater): the first a tragedy, the second an uplifting tale of love and redemption, almost separate plays unto themselves.
Personally, I have never had much appreciation for The Winter’s Tale (at least relative to the Bard’s other plays)—finding it a tad too fantastical—until this production. In a modern take on the tale, director Michael Sexton’s story is relatable, light, swift and fun. Taking the set (Brett J. Banakis) of a formal dining room/living room in the first act and then turning over chairs and moving or covering the Edwardian furniture to represent the ensuing chaos and disruption that leads to the second half is impactful; couple that with Bradley King’s beautiful lighting to suggest deeply spiritual moments, storms, or revelations, and we have the feel of a world made topsy-turvy by a schism in the general order of things. Quite effective devices.
Better still is the worthy cast, from Abraham’s enchanting Queen Hermione to James’ mad Leontes, it is a solid, entertaining ensemble. With numerous characters but a small cast, some actors are, pleasingly, totally unrecognizable in their secondary roles. Rachel Botchan’s Paulina is intense and severe when she scolds the king for killing his wife, so fearless and full of rage that we understand why he daren’t attempt to punish her; and when she flips and seemingly inexplicably becomes his ally, she makes it feel reasonable. And as a country shepherd girl, she is sweet and adorable in a Hee Haw kind of way. Best of all is James Udom as both the charming Prince Florizel of Bohemia (who can cut quite a rug with the shepherd girl he doesn’t realize is a princess) and as the young pajama-clad Sicilian prince, Mamillius. As the young prince, Udom, a very tall, striking man embodies the young boy, skipping and hopping with his nannies and playing the piano like an eager young student. His wide-eyes and facial expressions serve to give him thought and speech not written in the script, adding layer upon layer to a normally one-dimensional character ordinarily played by a child.
In his later years Shakespeare set out to write plays that were all things to all people. Ones that could satisfy, at once, a thirst for tragedy, romance and/or comedy. The Winter’s Tale, famously known for a rare, yet outlandish stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear,” is peppered with some lengthy, sub-Bard-par speeches. Yet, in this production the language is accessible and easy to understand, making one understand what he was going for when he wrote it: a Shakespeare story for all people in all different moods. A crowd pleaser. To get a good feel for what The Winter’s Tale is meant to be, this is the production to see.
The Winter’s Tale. Through March 15 at The Pearl Theater (555 West 42nd Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues). www.pearltheatre.org
*Photos: Richard Termine