By William Shakespeare
Directed by Rocco Sisto
At Shakespeare and Company
the Mount, Lenox MA. Summer and tour, 1997

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

The Winter’s Tale isn’t easy to do. The kind of "special effects" that are essential to Shakespeare's plot -- a man-eating bear, a waxworks-perfect statue that comes to life, a cast with characters who age sixteen years from one scene to the next -- are tricks that the movies do so very realistically that it becomes very difficult for the theatre to provide a convincing substitute that enlists the imagination of the audience. The Winter's Tale "miracles" have defeated every company I’ve seen produce it , although most of them get enough of the play to work to make it worth the producing. I had high hopes for the Shakespeare & Company version, which is a part of the Bare Bard series. Bare Bard productions, which tour after the summer season, use a small cast of excellent versatile actors tripling and quadrupling roles, with minimal set and costumes, and often substitute symbolic movement similar to that of Eastern theatre traditions or to that of modern dance for the conventions of naturalistic staging. Bare Bards have been some of the very best Shakespeare I have ever seen, I thought perhaps this kind of treatment of the Tale would help the imagination leap over some of the difficulties.

However, that's not the direction in which Rocco Sisto took his production. Sisto uses a largish cast for a Bare Bard production: nine actors rather than five or six. The set is indeed minimal, but Arthur Oliver's costumes are very specific: mid-to-late nineteenth century. (Except that Perdita at the country feast is garbed out of Botticelli.) The prologue is a dumb-show march-in drill that sets a court pattern of protocol and restraint, and then suddenly we are faced with King Leontes of Sicilia's madness. Sisto orchestrates the court's response beautifully. While the power structure of the monarchy invites irrationality and tyranny, it is so far from the customary behavior of this particular monarch that when Leontes is irrational and tyrannical his subjects at first simply don't notice. When Leontes declares that his pregnant Queen, Hermione, is committing adultery with his oldest and dearest friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia, Leontes' courtiers assume that they misheard him, or that the king is joking.

The most painful of these scenes is the one the King shares with his small son, Mamillius, where the boy senses that something is terribly wrong but can only hold up his end of the conversation by ignoring the abyss beneath and plunging ahead as if secure in an indulgent father's love. Tiger Coleman, who plays Mamillius, looks a perfect prince, and he has many of the skills of a fine actor. But young Coleman was not really into his part at the performance I saw, and I must admit that I was relieved that this was so, even though emotional truth is the hallmark of a Shakespeare and Company production. The human mind will go to almost any length to protect itself from the full realization of a parent's murderous rage. To ask a child to experience such a scene fully, performance after performance -- it is perilously near emotional abuse.

Otherwise, though, it is wonderful to see these fine S&C actors register the realization that The Man is in the grip of paranoia. Malcolm Ingram plays Polixenes straight, an honorable character whose nightmare experience at his friend's hands will have chilling reverberations later in the play. Virginia Ness Ray begins Hermione uncertainly, with little tics, as if either the actress or the character is off-center and at half-strength--- but Ray holds nothing back in her trial scene. Everything is at stake, and everything is shattered. The Queen's devastation is devastating in effect, and I wept along with her. Jonathan Croy's Camillo spins out a symphony of measured response to his sovereign's one-note obsession, and escapes with character to spare -- who says good guys have to be boring? Walton Wilson's Antigonus, on the other hand, could stand to be a tad less eccentric, and save some of his wilder takes for his expert rogue Autolycus in the second half of the play. Paulina, who confronts Leontes face to face and defends the Queen and her children, is , line for line, as rich and heroic a woman's part as has ever been written, and the magnificent Ariel Bock does it full justice.

Leontes sees betrayal and conspiracy everywhere, and anyone who ventures to try to correct the king's interpretation of what he sees risks being lumped in with the traitors and conspirators. There is no earthly power higher than the King's mere opinion to which his subjects might appeal, and when at Hermione's trial -- this may be the most difficult "special effect of all" -- the Higher Power itself in the name of Apollo issues an oracular revelation of the truth via Messenger: "Hermione is chaste, Polixenes blameless, ... Leontes a jealous tyrant..." Leontes rejects that, too -- at least long enough to issue the orders that destroy his family. In the next instant, Mamillius and Hermione have both dropped dead from the shear shock of Leontes murderous rage. And an instant later, Leontes is cured. It is as if the man has had a nightmare, and, sleeping, killed -- and is now awake and aware of what he has done. What next?

Next, the scene shifts to Bohemia, sixteen years later. Everybody gets to change costume and play a new character.

It is interesting that in this narrative the ruler of Sicilia's act has no political significance. John Hadden plays a very ordinary Leontes, not one who is every inch a king. Though Leontes threatens those who oppose his will, in truth his criminal folly accomplishes no more than what is in the power of every father -- he destroys his family. In the second half , Leontes near-brother and near-victim, Polixenes, gets the opportunity to destroy his own family in his own turn -- and nearly does so, too.

Perdita, (Elizabeth Aspenlieder) Hermione's daughter, has escaped her death sentence and been rescued and reared by a simple shepherd, grown prosperous from the jewels that were left with the baby princess. Hadden doubles as Perdita's stepfather, and his is a delightfully countrified characterization, far more vivid and particular than his Everyman Leontes. Grown to grace and beauty, Perdita is beloved by Polixenes' son, Florizel (Jason Asprey). The Bohemian scenes suffer somewhat from the production's limitations: no handsome country lads to dance and revel, and a stripping down of Perdita's flowery poetry to get on with the plot. Thus the second outburst of patriarchal rage -- when King Polixenes throws off the commoner's disguise he has used to check up on his slumming son and threatens everyone with a traitor's death --- takes place without the counterweight of edenic affection and rough equality. The leap to reconciliation and a happy ending has to happen in spite of a wider-than-usual gap, which means that more depends on that final miracle of stagecraft, the statue that comes to life. For me, this didn't work. I wanted that miracle to work, --- and Haddad's Leontes seemed so penitent, so aged and worn by the years of living with guilt and loss, that I felt for once that it deserved to work -- and so I willed it to work, and by curtain call when the actors assembled for their well-earned applause I had almost convinced myself that it had worked -- alas, from Sisto there was no miracle. The most I could manage to believe was that Paulina was a something of a slight of hand artist, and pulled off a good trick.