By SUZI STEFFEN
ASHLAND – A man tells his pregnant wife to hang out with his best friend and make the friend feel welcome enough that he’ll stay longer than his planned nine-month visit. When she does just that, the man gets jealous and tries to have a loyal servant kill the best friend. He imprisons his wife and treats her and their older child (and heir) so badly that the boy dies. The woman has her baby, a girl, in prison. The man puts his wife on trial and treats her so viciously that she also dies. He sends a close advisor/servant with the baby girl on orders that she be exposed on a rock somewhere far away, after which the advisor dies in the most famous stage direction ever written. The ship that brought the advisor and the baby to the place where the baby is to be left to die founders in a storm, with all hands aboard drowning.
That’s a summary of the tragic, grim, pre-intermission plot of The Winter’s Tale. This late Shakespearean romance runs through October outside at the Allen Elizabethan Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “A sad tale’s best for winter,” says the young heir to the throne (did I mention the jealous man is a king and his wife a queen?) before he dies, and the first half is indeed chilling. But don’t forget: Summer is coming.
Director Desdemona Chiang says that the framing for this play is that of a fairy tale. (See much more of her discussion here and here.) And in a fairy tale, things that seem tragic might turn out to be wonderful, or vice versa.
Aside from the stage direction – recently parodied by the tweet “Brexit, followed by a bear market” – the plot of The Winter’s Tale combines elements a theater fan will recognize from Oedipus and also from a variety of other Shakespeare plays: from Othello, Pericles, and Comedy of Errors, from Twelfth Night, from As You Like It. It’s familiar but combined in new ways, a tale that takes winter and summer, the court and the green world of the forest, and mixes them into a new amalgam of loss, possibility and love.
The moral compass in all of the sadness and horror of the first half, and in the final redemptive arc of the second, is Paulina. She’s Queen Hermione’s close friend and lady-in-waiting, and then a servant and adviser to jealous King Leontes. The last time the Festival performed Winter’s Tale, ten years ago, Miriam Laube played Hermione; this time, she’s Paulina. In 2006, I wrote, “Laube as Hermione, in her grief and bewilderment, is magical in this production.” Take that and multiply it – because Paulina gets to take action where Hermione is mostly reaction, not her fault but not Shakespeare’s best writing – and you’ll get Laube in this outdoor version at the Allen Elizabethan Theatre. She’s simply superb.
In Sicilia, King Leontes is played by Eric Steinberg, and Queen Hermione with humor, skill and grace by Amy Kim Waschke. Steinberg is excellent at Leontes’ bizarre anger and (far too late) remorse, and his acting skills are strong. Shakespeare performed outside requires that the actors cheat front, that they speak the lines with clarity, crispness and force. At opening, this was not the case for Steinberg, which was unfortunate and the subject of much discussion at intermission. One hopes this will change as the summer season continues.
In the first half, the Sicilian court is inspired by the Han Dynasty of China. It’s a formal and court-centered empire with heavy class distinctions and an absolute ruler. The second half takes place 16 years later, in Bohemia, here inspired by the American West (or at least a brightly colored, steampunk version of the American West) of the Gold Rush. The costumes are by Helen Q. Huang, set design by Richard L. Hay, lighting design by Yi Zhao and composing and sound by Andre J. Pleuss; all of the designers’ work melds to show the contrast between the two worlds.
That second half sees the best friend from the first half, Polixenes (a fine James Ryen) trying to figure out how to deal with his son Florizel (Moses Villarama)’s infatuation with shepherd girl Perdita (Cindy Im, strong in this role). Bohemia is, indeed, Bohemian; an Oregon Country Fair of a place, where ribbons and costumes, song and dance, food and merriment occupy the diverse hardworking people of the area.
Yet Polixenes, like his former best friend Leontes, is prone to anger and bad decisions. One might even say that power corrupts, and that monarchs should listen to their best advisors. In the case of Polixenes, his advisor is the warm and kind Camillo (a wonderful Cristofer Jean), who tries all play long, through two lands and two decades and two kings, to keep his monarchs from behaving like fools and to mitigate the damage when he can’t fix the kings. Camillo is much like Paulina, a parallel recognized at the end of the play by Leontes.
The play is rife with other fools – not just the idiot kings, angry and jealous, but the clowning Old and Young Shepherds (Jonathan Haugen and Paco Tolson, both sincerely amusing), and the devious thief Autolycus (Stephen Michael Spencer, who makes this rogue clever, the performer of a sneering dance on the knife’s edge of funny and evil) – and, as usual, an avid Shakespeare watcher will be able to contrast the behavior of the least rich men with that of various servants and the monarchs themselves. But, as in the other romances – The Tempest, Cymbeline, Pericles – the clowns, the fools, the advisors, the lovers and the old monarchs all find themselves together and fairly pleased at the conclusion of the play.
OSF creates a lot of what’s known as high-concept Shakespeare, setting the plays within countries or time periods (or both) that shed new light on their meaning. Some recent examples include Measure for Measure set on the border of the U.S. and Mexico; Troilus and Cressida set in the contemporary Middle East; and Romeo and Juliet set in Alta California as the U.S. takes it over. This production of The Winter’s Tale is the first time the OSF has explicitly used an East Asian setting for Shakespeare, and one hopes that – with an equivalent amount of care around designers, directors and actors – it’s only going to be the first of many.
Cultural writer Suzi Steffen has been covering the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for ArtsWatch this season. More reports from her visits:
- Living history: Roe in Ashland. On the festival’s premiere of Lisa Loomer’s play based on the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade abortion decision: “I predict that you’ll be seeing it soon elsewhere, perhaps many elsewheres.”
- ‘The Wiz’-bang: a showy spectacle. Steffen eases on down the road to consider the charms of the outdoor musical The Wiz.
- The guitar strings at midnight. Reviewing the festival’s newest Hamlet, which haunts the stage with some heavy-metal smoke and thrash.
- Pow, Bam, Love, M*therf!$&er! A review of the festival’s small-theater production of Qui Ngyuen’s powerful (and foulmouthed) postwar play Vietgone.
- Skiing the mountain of Hamlet. A fascinating, insightful interview with Danforth Comins, this season’s great Dane.
- From shipwreck to fairy tale. Steffen reviews the season’s first four shows, which opened in February: Twelfth Night, The Yeomen of the Guard, Great Expectations, and The River Bride.