In a sudden rush of laughter, characters of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” dipped in and out of bridged columns and took the stage in an abrupt cacophony filled with clanking swords and a laughing child, mixed with the occasional “oo” and “ah.” This energy, however, slowly dwindled in A Noise Within’s production of “The Winter’s Tale,” yet was still held up by supporting characters who withhold the beauty of Shakespeare’s problem play.
The play centers around the misjudgment of Leontes (Frederick Stuart), an uncontainably jealous husband to Hermoine (Trisha Miller), and the repercussions of his quick reaction to the idea that Hermoine is cheating on him with his close friend Polixenes (Brian Ibsen). Thinking that her child is Polixenes,' Leontes subjects her to imprisonment and Polixenes to death at the hands of his servant Camilo (Jeremy Rabb). However, things don’t go as planned as Camilo and Polixenes escape Sicilia for safety and Hermoine dies. Years later, after her child is set to drift off in a river and Leontes withers in his lies, they all reunite with new lives ahead of them and a remarkable revival of Hermoine.
“The Winter’s Tale” is known to be one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, meaning it missed the mark on completion and mixed genres, going from drama to comedy. Under Geoff Elliott’s direction, it took a more dramatic tone all the way through. Although ambitious, it does not do justice to Shakespeare, nor the viewer.
The key is in the writing. Shakespeare ends his comedies in unity and marriage. There tends to be a joyous calamity and rejoice for love, however, Elliott’s take aimed to pull on the heartstrings. Instead, it fell flat and lacked the energy that was very much present in the first three acts.
The production began with a jovial connection. The connection of Leontes and Polixenes took center stage and then veered away as Leontes’ jealousy took over. Stuart’s understanding and presentation of the language allowed for a brisk following of the narrative. His anger was warranted and juxtaposed the act he put on for his wife. However, it did not go away. Stuart lacked the vocal variety to uphold the overarching narrative of Leontes as the troubled King of Sicilia who is overtaken by his own vices. It quickly became the story of an angry king who loved to manipulate other characters.
The movement also failed to tell the story. Elliott’s blocking and movement patterns tended to take up space without validation. In particular, when Leontes confronted Hermoine he went around the entire thrust stage before he landed in front of another character, even when there was a more logical path. In fact, it broke the tension and had the eyes covering the whole stage when a simple movement makes the interaction just as powerful, if not more.
The shift in time period seemed unwarranted and does nothing to uplift the play out of the text, and instead felt like an excuse to allow Leontes to do coke on stage and chain smoke one cigarette after the other. Producing the play in the same form it is in now with the early 17th century backdrop would have the same impact. The attempted contemporary take misses the landing.
The power was in the supporting actors and set. Paulina (Deborah Strang), the one who reported Hermoine’s death and was loyal to the queen, took over the stage and gave the narrative purpose. In an argument with Leontes, Strang took comfort in Shakespeare’s language, taking full advantage of her vocal variety and telling the story stronger than Stuart. Even in the most dramatic times, her movements and physical interactions with other characters like Antigonus supported the text and her performance.
The set, designed by Frederica Nascimento, was minimalistic with two sets of square columns move across the set between each scene to depict a backdrop or hallway or differing rooms. It was innovative and helped tell the story. In the last two acts, actors even moved with the set, creating a dance out of the interaction. It was very specific, all the way down to the hangings from the ceiling shaped like birds sucking nectar from a flower. The lighting, designed by Ken Booth, helped push the narrative along and supplemented the words of Leontes. In anger, lights shifted to amber, and when he built up a wall, it shifted to blue. Altogether, although minimal, the design impacted the overall scope of the narrative.
“The Winter’s Tale” started strong by providing a look at how jealousy and ignorance can be an overall demise, however, this message faded as the production continued. Instead there were more questions. When a bear ate Antigonus, it is understood that it happened, how and why. However, the lost cub that was meant to represent the ghost of Mamillius (Jayce Evans) felt distracting and his hook to the stage lacked purpose, but to be a cute rouse for the audience. By the end of the play, he raised his hand and waved as all the characters ran off in joy, but the goodbye was too soon. There were more questions to be answered.
“The Winter’s Tale” runs now through April 11th at A Noise Within. Tickets start at $25. More information can be found here.