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Posted May 2, 2012, 9:32 am
William Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” sits at the margins of his collected works. The play is a thorny amalgam of tragedy, comedy and romance, with a bawdy undertone. It’s not great as far as Shakespeare goes, but it is Shakespeare nonetheless, still among our best literature in the last 500 years.
More popular works – “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet” “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream,” “MacBeth” – are the theatre’s equivalent of Beethoven’s Fifth or Ninth Symphonies to an orchestra looking to fill seats. It’s easier to dismiss Shakespeare’s problem plays such as “Measure for Measure,” “Timon of Athens” and “The Winter’s Tale.”
The Rogue Theatre has mounted a quality budget production that Shakespeare himself might smile at, for its dedication to effective performance and its achievements in entertainment value.
The problem with “The Winter’s Tale” is Shakespeare’s. His plot, rejiggered from several popular sources of the time, ends up with more holes than fine Swiss cheese.
The Bard shamelessly uses deus ex machine tricks to leap over gaps in time and logic. He tosses in a little of everything and the crowd in the 16th Century would have loved it, especially the groundlings, the Globe Theatre’s cheap admission audience standing in front of the stage looking up, famous for their drunken rowdiness.
Not only is there the famous, “Exit, pursued by a bear” stage direction; Time itself appears to make a speech. Among the checklist of tropes, there’s a naughty Satyr’s dance, a humorous rogue, a bumpkin, kings and queens, star-crossed lovers, pastoral romance, cuckolding and bastardry, death of an innocent, a murder plot, a tempest, vengeance of the gods, repentance, forgiveness, reunification and a happy ending. Willie didn’t care if you believed or understood, all he really wanted to do was entertain.
Rogue does that and more with an 18 member cast, fully costumed. The set may be minimal, but they don’t skimp on pageantry.
The text’s setting and tone vacillate between contrasting kingdoms: tragedy in Sicilia and romance/comedy in Bohemia. Here the Rogue production adds a brilliant grace note with music: Elizabethan harpsichord to site us in formal Sicilia, contrasted with Central European folk tunes on drums and bagpipes for pastoral, exotic Bohemia.
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The Sicilian tragedy: King Leontes gets all Kim Jong Il with paranoid delusions about his wife, Queen Hermione and his best friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia. Leontes sends Hermione to prison and Polixenes wisely hightails it home. To Leontes that’s proof of skullduggery.
Hermione gives birth in prison to a daughter, Perdita, and Leontes exiles the infant, deluded that she might not be his.
A servant, Antigones, takes Perdita to Bohemia where his ship sinks in a storm and he gets eaten by a bear – how’s that for a bad day?
Suddenly and somewhat awkwardly, the play transforms into both a comedy and romance. The infant is found by a kindly shepherd who raises her. Rogue cuts here for intermission, effectively compressing the Bard’s three hour, five-act play down to a pithier two-act arc, putting us in a happier place for the interval.
Perdita, of course, turns out to be beautiful since she’s a princess, and, of course, attracts the attention of Polixenes’ son and heir, Florizel. Intercut with the romance is a comedy of a rollicking rogue (heh, heh), Autolycus, who addresses the audience about how ripe the occasion is for some unabashed thievery and professionally adept pick-pocketry.
Rogue’s second act has lots of dancing, including a risqué Satyr’s segment featuring masks with really long noses.
So, the seemingly-forbidden couple frolics, dad freaks, the teenager runaways sail to Sicilia, where Leontes is sorry for being a butt head and Perdita’s royal lineage is revealed making her a legitimately eligible bride for Florizel. In a final kitchen sink and all move by Shakespeare, Hermione is brought back from the dead (!), everyone is happy, the end.
Director and Rogue co-founder Cynthia Meier gives thoughtful attention to detail throughout the fantastic show. The contrasting kingdoms are comprehensively evoked using sound and light. The minimal stage and open floor arrangement facilitate entrances and exits in all directions, engulfing the audience in the action.
The Rogue show is respectfully truncated, streamlined in service to the story, with minimal impact on the luscious language, sounds and rhythms of Middle English. The result is a comprehensible story that still showcases the rich speech, but with a focus on narrative progress rather than historical linguistics.
As usual, the core company members play the key roles. Foremost is Patty Gallagher as the over-the-top rogue Autolycus, playing heavy metal air guitar on a medieval stringed instrument and chuckling to the crowd, while deftly relieving the yokels of their purses. Joe McGrath plays the heavy, Leontes, while David Morden gets to have more fun as Polixenes.
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Notable among the very competent cast is Kathryn Kellner as Antigonus’ wife, Paulina, the last voice of reason to Leontes’ crazy. Spritely Dallas Thomas is charming as Perdita, perfectly content with her pastoral life, but with her princess-ness shining through.
The tasteful musical direction is shared between Dawn C. Sellers on harpsichord and Paul Amiel on harp, kaval, saz, ney and percussion, assisted by Anton Shekerjiev on gaida, tamboura and vocals. Before the play begins, there is the traditional Rogue musical interlude starting 15 minutes before curtain. Don’t miss it – the harpsichord pieces build into Elizabethan songs until the cast in costume closes the pre-show olio with a convivial welcoming group sing.
Kudos also to Meier for the luxurious costume design, lighting by Clint Bryson, choreography by John Gardner and Amanda McKerrow and masks by Angela Horchem.
As for the bear, let’s just say that Rogue has a tradition of gigantic puppetry, here in association with Tucson Puppetry Works co-director Matt Cotten. On opening night, when the bear chased Antigonus, the front row all jumped involuntarily.
Imagine how the groundlings would have reacted.