Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale

DSC03840_rv_hKatie Rose Krueger and Sean Patrick Nil (Photo by Stephen Moorer)

By Philip Pearce

Pacific Repertory has just opened a beautifully mounted, powerfully performed production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.

It’s a play that’s traditionally listed with the comedies, but, as dramaturge Dan Gotch points out in his program notes, that’s not an easy fit. Modern scholars tend to link it with The Tempest in a new classification called late romances, not as in a pulp fiction bodice ripper, but as a label for a theatrical mix of heavy melodrama, rollicking slapstick, special visual effects and a sense of the supernatural.

King Leontes of Sicilia, played with terrifying intensity by Michael Wiles, launches the tale with an explosion of jealous rage, convinced against all argument or evidence that his innocent Queen Hermione has been having an extended affair with their houseguest, King Polixines of Bohemia (the forceful Stephen Massot). As Hermione, Lyla Engelhorn is a delight in her opening extended banter with Wiles and Massot. Her girlish voice and feathery charm may seem less-suited to the heavier dramatic moments when she’s rejected and publicly humiliated by the ruthless Leontes, but she has admirable dignity and radiance in the important final moments of the play.

Unlike Othello, who is a victim of the lying Iago, Leontes’ jealousy is self-generated. He has only himself to blame when his pre-teen son Mamillius dies. Hermione, confined to a prison cell, then reportedly dies after giving birth to a daughter Perdita. In a final gesture of vengeance Leontes banishes the infant Perdita, entrusting her to Camillo, a loyal elder statesman played with great charm and distinction by Howard Burnham. Camillo’s unwelcome assignment is to abandon the infant girl in some wilderness area where there are plenty of wild beasts.

Clearly, we’re dealing with full throttle dramatics and some over-the-top characters. Kenneth Kelleher, who not only directs but has designed the play, handles cast, action and setting brilliantly. Far from soft pedaling all the paranoia and rage and terror, he emphasizes it, signaling again and again that what we’re watching is not a slice of life or a psychological study but an old-fashioned hot-blooded tale. The sets are gorgeous panels carrying a succession of lush, pre-Raphaelite, dream-world projections, starting with the repeated image of a child reading a story book. The young Mamillius appears again and again, head buried in the pages of a tale. The shadowy frock-coats and subdued brown tea-gowns costumier Jocelyn Leiser-Herndon has designed for the adult courtiers underline the young prince’s insistence that “A sad tale’s best for winter.”

Setting and the emphasis then shift—almost lurch—to a brightly lit, color-filled second half that’s full of summertime hoedown dance numbers by farm-bred bumpkins, rural cuties and sneaky pick-pockets. We are in the crazy brave new world of sixteen-year-old Perdita, who didn’t get eaten by a passing bear, but has been absorbed into a sheep-herding community and is currently romancing Florizel (the charming and resourceful Sean Patrick Nil), renegade son of Leontes’ banished houseguest King Polixenes. Katie Rose Krueger plays a whole series of cleverly linked characters, starting out as the bright and chirpy Mamillius, then turning into his chalk-faced and spooky ghost, and finally becoming his effervescent sibling Perdita. The energetic Krueger bridges the sixteen-year time gap between Parts 1 and 2 by slipping out of her little boy gear and into full and gorgeous young womanhood as Perdita. She plays this role with a verve and vigor that work well for a romping shepherdess on a giddy day off. What may be lacking is any sense of the Elizabethan conceit, voiced by Polixenes, that if you are of royal blood it’s impossible to hide it even in the most lowlife of settings. Observing his son’s new sweetheart, Polixenes declares that this “prettiest lowborn lass” appears “too noble” for a mere sheep shearing festival. Krueger’s Perdita blends in so well with all the surrounding raunchy merriment that it’s hard to understand why Polixenes thought her so regal, but she is lovely to watch.

Elizabethan horseplay and monkeyshines have the shortest shelf life of any parts of Shakespeare’s body of work. Four-hundred-year-old jokes and japery just produce puzzlement in most modern audiences. Kelleher and the cast do the foolery pretty well, thanks in large part to some adroit work by comic talents like D. Scott McQuiston, Mike Baker and Cassidy Brown. Don Dally has put together an appealing olio of country music ranging from updated Shakespeare to 1930s pop. And I liked a pickpocket routine in which Brown, as the crass and wily rural con man Autolycus not only purloins Baker’s cash but, undetected, strips him of everything he owns except his long-johns. Not subtle, but a good piece of circus clowning.

The climax of The Winter’s Tale is its most memorable sequence and one of the most famous in Shakespeare. It brings into focus religious motifs the text has only hinted at in earlier passing terms like “faith” and “grace.” The emphasis shifts back to the tragedy of the royal couple and to perhaps the play’s most interesting character; friend and courtier Paulina is less an actor than observer and arranger of the action of others. Like Prospero in The Tempest she comments on and shapes the actions of others like a good director. When Leontes comes to realize and acknowledge his guilt, she shows him little mercy and becomes a whirlwind of indignant rage as she announces that Hermione is dead, slamming out his iniquities, point by point, with a terrified assurance. Julie Hughett makes the woman an inspired avenging angel, but also an agent of forgiveness and reconciliation, even for the dastardly Leontes. As he repentantly rejoins those he has wronged at court, Paulina’s sworn report that Hermione has died seems to have been, what? A deception? The lift-off of a miracle? It’s not totally clear, but she has seemingly kept her friend the queen hidden away in a kind of magic suspended animation, unchanged by the passing years. And she comes up with an invitation to view a statue so exactly like the “dead” Hermione, that it seems to breathe.

The coming to life of the “statue” is so replete with religious language that most productions I’ve seen introduce the static Hermione like a plaster saint high up in a veiled apse. At PacRep the motionless Englehorn is seated at floor level as she slides into view on a revolve and comes to life not from a religious height but side by side with Leontes and the others. It’s been a domestic tragedy. The reunion and resolution are similarly simple and domestic. The estranged couple embrace and it’s all over except the tears, and the music.

Or almost. In a final coda, Kelleher clears everyone off but the reunited Leontes and Hermione, who dance and then stop in their tracks. The child with the book has returned. He takes his place in a spotlight downstage and begins to read as the dancing couple freeze like an illustration from the pages of the tale he is reading.

This is good stuff.