The Winter's Tale
[This review was published in the Denver Post on July 12th. However, due to their refusal to include references to the authorship question, and to the manner in which the review was compromised, it runs here in its entirety immediately.]
To those who accept the Stratford man as the author of Shakespearean drama, The Winter's Tale is an enigmatic anomaly to the Bard's canon. It does not fit the classical definition of either comedy or tragedy, resembling more the hybrid form of romance that was so popular in Lisbon at the time. In addition, it contains uncharacteristic twists: a rare stage direction—Exit, pursued by a bear—and the surreal Christian imagery of the heroine, Queen Hermoine, being resurrected to redeem the tragic hero, King Leontes.
And while there are those that hold biographical interpretations as unnecessary or irrelevant, to avoid such analysis is to risk placing the real Bard's works completely out of context, at the liberty of academics whose investment in the grain dealer with the illiterate daughter has become more a matter of saving face than facing the facts.
Though available space precludes us from a full airing of the authorship debate, for the purposes of this review let it be sufficient to frame this story as the culmination of the ongoing issue of a jealous husband accusing his wife of unfaithfulness—that runs through Much Ado About Nothing, Merry Wives of Windsor, Cymbeline, and Othello to The Winter's Tale—which, like so much in the canon, reflects specific events in the life of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.
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Stephen Weitz as Leontes;
Kyle K. Lewis as Mamillius;
Bridgit Antoinette Evans as Paulina;
Aimee Phelan-Deconinck as Hermione
Here, amidst David M. Barber's elegant, minimalist Far Eastern landscape, director Cynthia Croot has set this mythological tale in which the playwright has conjured Apollo's Delphic Oracle, Pentecostal instrumentals, Puritans singing pagan songs, a Queen who is the daughter of a Russian emperor, and an obscure 16th Century Italian sculptor (Julio Romano) as contemporaneous events.
The drama sets up quickly: King Polixenes of Bohemia is at the end of his stay with King Leontes and Queen Hermione of Sicilia; Leontes is unable to convince his old friend to extend his visit, but Hermoine does so easily; Leontes becomes jealous, convincing himself that he has been cuckolded; the ensuing tragedy is later resolved in idyllic circumstances through good fortune and magic.
The believability of the play hinges on Leontes seemingly irrational behavior toward his wife. Virtually every member of his court strenuously objects to his actions, but he is unyielding in his course. If one did not know that this directly parallels events surrounding de Vere and his wife Anne Cecil, one could question, as has often been the case, the plausibility of such a plot. Here, however, it is simply the playwright's take on his own actions, which he felt led to the death of his only son and his wife at the age of thirty-two (exactly as it does in the play).
Fittingly, Steven Weitz, as Leontes, shows great conviction in extrapolating the direst imaginings from what little evidence he manufactures and the guilt he perceives in others' action. By keeping his anger well-focused, Weitz sets up a believable penance in Leontes when events prove him wrong.
As the playwright does in other plays under similar accusatory circumstances with Desdamona, Imogen, and Hero, so here does he craft Hermione as a model of womanly virtue and intelligence. From her charming early scenes with her guest, Polixenes, to her honor-mantled defense, then post-partum bravery, and, finally, transcendent resurrection, Aimée Phelan-Deconinck is a Hermoine to remember, perfectly poised with masterful elocution and consummate voice, breath, and body control.
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Aimee Phelan-Deconinck as Hermione;
Kyle K. Lewis as Mamillius;
Bridgit Antoinette Evans as Paulina
The royals are rounded out by: Sean Tarrant, a suave and regal Polixenes; Elliot C. Villar and Sarah Dandridge, who bring a playful chemistry to the youthful romance of Florizel and Perdita; and Christopher Domig, a steady, forthright presence as Camillo.
On the comedic side, a hilarious series of encounters between Clown, a shepard's son, and Autolycus, a rogue, in which a fool and his money (and clothes) are soon parted, is cleverly escalated by the playwright into commentary on dishonesty and class pretensions. Nice work here by Ryan Spickard and Diomedes Koufteros.
There are also a few aspects of the production that manage to take some of the wind out of its sails, notably: the awkwardness of Paulina's scansion, which reduces the effect of her magical prowess; the functional, but comparatively distracting work on the part of Mamillius, the young prince; and the barely perceptible semblance of the famous bear.
Yet in concert with the redemption at the heart of the play, we, too, can overlook these transgressions, and appreciate the steady effort that brings such a satisfying transformation to Leontes, and therefore to the playwright himself.
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of The Winter's Tale runs through August 13th, in repertory with Twelfth Night, Othello, and Unexpected Shaxpere! 303-492-0554.