Friday, July 22, 2016

'The Winter's Tale' lights up a few summer nights at White River State Park

You don't need stage realism to evoke emotions that are joltingly real, and though Shakespeare  anticipated realism, we can dependably return to many of his plays and see how implausible situations requiring a drastic suspension of disbelief can still awaken our most fundamental sense of reality.

Before the storm breaks: The happy royal couple implore a king to extend his visit.
"The Winter's Tale," whether read silently or seen performed, never fails to move me when Leontes' wronged wife Hermione, unbelievably hidden away for 16 years from her husband and self-deluded accuser, turns from the likeness in which the loyal Paulina artfully presents her into a living queen ready for reconciliation with her contrite husband. All of a sudden, any sense that this is a far-fetched device becomes irrelevant.

How often it's true that ill-founded, unreasoned judgments, particularly around the issue of sexual fidelity, really destroy relationships! And how crucial it is that such misjudgments be corrected before it is too late, as it very nearly is in "The Winter's Tale," this year's Heartland Actors' Repertory Theatre production!

To this show, directed by Robert Neal, Ryan Artzberger brings ferocity and remorse in due succession to the role of Leontes, King of Sicilia, who sacrifices both his marriage and lifelong friendship with Polixenes, king of Bohemia, on a rickety altar of jealousy and paranoia. Seen on opening night Thursday, Artzberger's voice — quavering, rasping, disdainful, strident — remained clear. No local actor better sustains the impression of breaking down totally while in fact exerting firm control.

Mara Lefler as Hermione bears her unjust treatment with less stoicism than one often sees in this role, but she solidly displayed sturdy patience underneath the queen's indignation, which flared up touchingly in her heartfelt self-defense at trial.

Paulina (Constance Macy) presents the infant Perdita at court.
Ben Tebbe plays Polixenes with steadiness and wounded pride. Charles Goad is the loyal Sicilian courtier Camillo, forced to turn against Leontes and go over to Polixenes. He was powerful standing up to Leontes — an underling needing to muster every ounce of courage to counter his sovereign's madness. The other chief lord, Antigonus, also resistant to the Sicilian king, displayed less rebelliousness but a suitable liveliness of conscience in Scott Russell's portrayal.

Paulina's command of the dire situation has to seem absolute from the start. In her presentation of his newborn daughter to Leontes, she exhibits no trace of faintheartedness when the raging king orders her removal from court. When Constance Macy warns, "Let him that makes but trifles of his eyes / First hand me," you feel everyone freeze in place, as though you'd better not move, either.

The naturalness and poise of Macy's verse-speaking were exemplary.  "The Winter's Tale" has a pretty sharp division between the prose of the low-born characters and the poetry of those higher up on the social scale. Actors in Shakespeare need to make both prose and poetry retain their integrity, while suiting their characters. The formality of Paulina's iambic-pentameter lines in the recognition/reconciliation scene was there in Macy's performance, but you could also believe a real person was saying them. She approached the gold standard, enunciated long ago by Samuel Johnson in his "Preface to Shakespeare" (allowances must be made for the customary male pronoun): "Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks that he should himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion."

The young lovers whose sylvan romance turns out happily had their idyll somewhat dominated by the comic business going on all around them. I missed the haze of lyricism that ought to surround them. Still, Ryan Claus as Florizel and Phebe Taylor as Perdita lent their roles pastoral naturalness and determined ardor. In costumes and lighting, the right atmosphere was conjured.

The dramatic seesaw first tips toward comedy at the point of the most amusing stage direction in the canon:"Exit pursued by a bear." Leontes' courtier Antigonus is charged with taking the infant girl Hermione has birthed into the wilds to survive or not.  Completing his duty, the apprehensive lord fails to outrun the bear, and from behind the stage the fur and bits of clothing fly amid stentorian roars, mixed with the audience's laughter.

Rob Johansen plays the show's master of deceit and of revels.
Antigonus' death throws sudden widowhood upon the heroic Paulina, who has resisted Leontes' delusions and tyrannical behavior and engineered Hemione's long-term seclusion. So it's a little disconcerting to process Antigonus' demise as comic. Yet this ushers in heightened importance for Autolycus, the rogue who dominates the second half of the play.

Rob Johansen inhabits the role at the summit of energy, physical matching verbal. He is draped in a bearskin when needed, and also contributes Time's monologue, an awkward narrative device designed to bridge the play's two time levels. Such multitasking gives the down-to-earth trickster a slightly supernatural edge, which shows up occasionally throughout the second act. He even closes the action at the end with an incantation and gestural magic. Being an actor who not only gives life to whatever he plays but also presents characters as though they were Life itself, Johansen turns Autolycus into a bargain-basement Prospero, one gifted with a sense of humor the magus of "The Tempest" lacks.

Miki Mathioudakis as the Old Shepherd.
The concept is unsettling, as is the fortunately infrequent interpolation of words not in Shakespeare (I remember hearing an "OK"). The ad libs come both from Johansen and from Scot Greenwell, identified in the "dramatis personae" as a Clown, the Old Shepherd's son. Greenwell reveled in the clownish part, partnering well with Miki Mathiodakis as the rustic geezer who discovers Perdita, the abandoned royal daughter. The play's antic picture of rural life was interpreted as a cue for hijinks, performed all out. The sheep-shearing festival took on some of the faux-ethnic gusto of Monty Python's Fish Slapping Dance.

By this point, we know that the jealous Leontes has been turned from his insane suspicions by the Delphic Oracle's unfavorable response to his inquiry — stunningly staged here — and the immediate death of his beloved son Mamillius. Earlier, as the happy family is needlessly torn part, Dalyn Stewart's performance well above the juvenile norm rent our hearts, too.

A play that achieves its own unity out of unlikely materials, "The Winter Tale" should be approached with an adventurous spirit. Dr. Johnson may have been thinking of it in particular when he wrote: "Shakespeare has united the powers of exciting laughter and sorrow not only in one mind, but in one composition...divided between serious and ludicrous characters, and ...sometimes [producing] seriousness and sorrow, and sometimes levity and laughter."

See it and weep. Then laugh. Then weep again.

[Photos by Julie Curry]

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