Thursday, February 3, 2011

“A Sad Tale's Best for Winter”
The Winter's Tale at the Guthrie

The Winter's Tale. Dir. Jonathan Munby. Perf. Ansa Akyea, Christina Baldwin, Raye Birk, Helen Carey, John Catron, Bob Davis, Sean Michael Dooley, Tyson Forbes, Emily Gunyou Halaas, Michael Hayden, Michael Thomas Holmes, Juan Rivera Lebron, Bill McCallum, Michelle O'Neill, Suzanne Warmanen, Christine Weber, Stephen Yoakam, Noah Coon,and Devon Solwold. Guthrie Theatre Company. Minneapolis. 29 January—27 March 2011.
Thanks to the Guthrie, I was able to see its production of The Winter's Tale last night. The Guthrie gave us a solid, good production of a difficult play.

The play is difficult because its scope is so large. There are shadows of Othello (in the jealously of Leontes), Macbeth (in Camillo's contemplation of the murder of an anointed king), Hamlet (with Perdita's distribution of flowers), and A Midsummer Night's Dream (with surreal elements creeping in from time to time).

A review of this production is also difficult for similar reasons. This is a big, big production. It's amazing how much is going on! To make it a bit more manageable, I'm breaking it into categories ("Brilliant," "Interesting," "Unusual," and "Uncertain") below.

Note: There may be inadvertent spoilers here. If you'd rather not know beforehand, go see the play before reading further.

  • Lighting. I was immensely impressed with the use of lighting, color, and shadow for this production. The effects of the characters' shadows descending into the prison cell, for example, could compete with Orson Welles on a level playing field. The level of attention to the marriage of color to text was truly thrilling. The rustic scenes started with warm oranges, reds, and yellows, but the colors were subtly washed out when things start to turn sour in that world. And there were some bizarre and wonderful blue lights during the scene where Antigonus leaves the baby on the beach that were simply beyond my understanding.
  • Point of View. Several scenes invite us to see the actions on stage from a particular character's point of view. While common enough in film, it's not done as often in a stage production. But it was very effective. Early in the play, when Leontes is first becoming jealous of Hermione, we gather that we are meant to see Hermione and Polixenes from Leontes' point of view. They aren't really being as affectionate toward each other as Leontes thinks. Later, we have something of a dream sequence from Leontes' tortured mind. It was quite effective. The use of filmic devices for a stage production was marvelous.
  • Leontes. Michael Hayden, as Leontes, delivered a speech from I.ii brilliantly. He was able to give it just the right tone to make every single person in the audience—male and female—squirm at its implications. His own mind has been poisoned with jealousy; he works hard at poisoning the audience with jealousy. Here's the speech:
Now while I speak this, holds his wife by the arm,
That little thinks she has been sluiced in's absence
And his pond fish'd by his next neighbour, by
Sir Smile, his neighbour.
  • Leontes again. In Othello, it takes Iago until Act III, scene iii to work Othello into a fever pitch of jealousy. In The Winter's Tale, Leontes must get to that point—and believably, too—in one and a half scenes. Again, Michael Hayden manages it.
  • Public exchanges / private exchanges. At the beginning of Act I, scene i, Polixenes makes the case for his heading back to his home country of Bohemia. This production chose to have him deliver that speech very publicly; Leontes tries to dissuade him from going—that, too, is very public. That gives the entire exchange an interesting depth. Both characters are in danger of losing face. It adds another intriguing layer to the exchange—and to the audience's understanding of what's at stake when Polixenes gives in to Hermione.
  • Use of the trap. I love the Guthrie's trap and the many uses to which it has been put, but I've never seen it used as effectively as it was in this play. I'm in danger of giving away a major spoiler, and I want those who see the show to be surprised, so I'll stop there.
  • Some of the music. The show opens with four jazz standards. They were well sung, they set the mood, and they enabled the audience to witness some dancing that was lovely to see. Moreover, this refined music and dancing served as an interesting contrast to the folksy, bluegrass numbers in the play's rustic setting. But the best song, and the one that indicated this production's indebtedness to Ian McKellen's film version of Richard III, was a bluegrass version of Kit Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to his Lass." McKellen's film has a jazz song with those lyrics near its beginning. Hearing "Come live with me and be my love" as a bluegrass number with the ensemble doing country dancing was certainly a highlight of this production.
  • Debt to McKellen's Richard III. The song mentioned above isn't the only connection between this stage production and McKellen's film production. They both employ an old-fashioned microphone that becomes a key part of the action. They both use the color red to great effect. And they both present the villain of the piece in a fairly-sympathetic light.
  • Antigonus and the Bear. The Winter's Tale has Shakespeare's most notorious stage direction: "Exit, pursued by a bear." Antigonus is reluctantly following Leontes' orders to expose the baby Leontes thinks isn't his own (though it is) on the coast of Bohemia (though it doesn't have one). In any case, his exit pursued by and subsequent consumption by a bear can be read as just deserts: he's eaten by a bear because he followed the unjust command of his king. In this production, Antigonus is given a more noble exit than that. The bear (and the bear in this production is really something you have to see to believe!) heads for the baby at first, but Antigonus distracts it from her—at the cost of his own life. It goes some way to redeeming his character.
  • Sets. The sets were extravagant and beautiful. The rustic scenes have a marvelous forest of birch trees and a Chevvy. The final scene is remarkable, with a circular curtain descending from the top of the ceiling to enshroud the statue at the end.
  • The Oracle of Delphi. Leontes sends to the Oracle of Delphi to find out the truth of the situation. He's convinced that the Oracle will confirm his suspicions. The text calls for the Oracle's response to be read after the seals are broken on the message. This production brings the Oracle herself on stage—in a wheelchair and with a muzzle on. The muzzle is removed so that she can speak the truth to Leontes. I'm interested in the decision, but I would have liked to see more done with it. Perhaps the Oracle could be re-muzzed later in the scene—Leontes, perhaps, wanting to silence the truth.
  • Pre-empting Time's speech. The play is also known for violating the unities in no uncertain terms. At the beginning of Act IV, Time himself enters and tells us how sixteen years have passed by. It's brilliant and daring. This production has those sixteen years pass by in quicker than an instant. At the end of Act III, the shepherd throws the clothes that wrapped the baby into the air and a sixteen-year-old girl approaches.
  • Some of the music in the rustic scenes. The bluegrass "Passionate Shepherd" was brilliant. However, a number of the other songs seemed forced. They did not naturally fit the music.
  • Use of audio voiceovers. At a few points—notably Antigonus' reporting of the vision of Hermione he had seen—the audio cuts in to provide dialogue. I'm afraid it was a bit awkward and confusing rather than clear and convincing.
  • The accusation scene. Act II, scene i contains Leontes' accusation of infidelity. The night I saw the play, the scene was pretty flat. None of the characters seemed to react at all to the accusation. Instead, they passively waited for the scene to progress.
But don't get me wrong about those "Uncertain" items. The play is so large and the production so enormous that there's room for things to be slightly uneven.

You should certainly go see this play. And don't forget to check the details on discount tickets to the Guthrie that you can get by mentioning Bardfilm!
Note: I just discovered a brief video clip from the Guthrie's website. It will give you a general sense of the production (including, at the end, part of the bluegrass version of "The Passionate Shepherd to his Love"):

Links: The Play at the Guthrie Theater.

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Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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