According to a common rule of thumb about Elizabethan plays, tragedies end in deaths, comedies end in weddings. Romances, those fanciful neither-fish-nor-fowl creatures that became Shakespeare’s late-career specialty, find their happy endings often at the altar as well, but festooned with symbolic blooms of reunion, reconciliation and restoration.
So it is in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which finds a pair of royal families ruptured by irrational passions until, first, divine intervention, and then, human agency can set things right.
ONLINE FESTIVAL: FERTILE GROUND 2021
Adapted from a 1588 novel called Pandosto, by Robert Greene, The Winter’s Tale concerns two longtime friends, King Leontes of Sicilia and King Polixenes of Bohemia. The trouble starts in Sicilia when Leontes comes to the mistaken belief that his wife, Hermione, is cheating with his friend. Polixenes slips back to Bohemia, and Leontes puts Hermione on trial, where amid the shock of it all she collapses and is pronounced dead. The complicated path to a resolution of this mess takes 16 years, a change of scenery to the sea coast of Bohemia (never mind that the region is actually quite landlocked), a shepherd girl of mysterious origin, young love, Leontes’ grieving repentance, Polixenes having a snit of his own, and much plotting by various parties.
And of course, there’s that bear. But more on him later.
Proper order is restored at last when Paulina, the wife of a Sicilian lord, reveals that she has kept Hermione alive and hidden all this time, awaiting the proper moment for love and forgiveness.
Toss in a couple of weddings by related characters and there you are – a happy ending all around!
But wait … what??
Granted, it can be healthy for couples to take a break sometimes, but …
FOR PORTLAND PLAYWRIGHT SUE MACH, there’s something intriguing about what Shakespeare leaves out. Act 4 of The Winter’s Tale opens with Time appearing briefly as a speaking character, to tell us of that 16-year gap. But what goes on through all that time?
That’s the subject of Mach’s latest play, Madonna of the Cat, which the online 2021 Fertile Ground festival of new works presents in an audio production available online beginning at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 7, the final day of the 11-day festival. All festival offerings remain viewable through Feb. 15 on Fertile Ground’s Facebook and YouTube channels..
Why audio only? “I’m Zoomed out!,” Mach says of the popular video platform. “I’m on Zoom so much teaching. And people are doing all sorts of creative things on Zoom, but I thought, ‘What if I did something as sort of a radio play?’”
To that end, Mach enlisted the help of musician/producer Jim Brunberg to create a soundscape for the play and assembled a talented cast of six along with director Jane Unger.
“We went into Revolution Hall in December to record it,” Mach says. “We did the whole social-distance thing and all, but just to be in the same room — everyone was just giddy!”
Any gathering of theater makers is exciting these days, but the actors likely also were thrilled to be working with Mach, who has had successful Portland productions of works such as Monograms, Lost Boy and A Noble Failure and whose in-progress musical about the 1960s rock festival Vortex 1 was the hit of Fertile Ground in 2019 and 2020.
Madonna of the Cat – the title derives from a reference in The Winter’s Tale to the Renaissance artist Giulio Romano, who often painted sacred figures in domestic settings – began a couple of years ago with a nudge from Michael Mendelson, artistic director of the Portland Shakespeare Project. In search of material for the play-reading series Proscenium Live, Mendelson called in the summer of 2019, “asking me if I had anything in a classical vein,” she recalls.
All she had, she told him, was this germ of an idea about The Winter’s Tale, a play she loves for its themes of transformation. Shakespeare’s Hermione is publicly castigated, imprisoned, nearly killed, separated from family, shut off from society. “How does one reach forgiveness after all that?,” Mach asks. “What has to be done to set the world right? You can’t just move on. How do you get back to a place from which you can move on? You have to deal with the thing first.”
“Just write me 15 pages,” Mendelson urged. Mach came up with about 40 pages in time to present a reading of the early work-in-progress. “Then I had it sitting around until last summer, when Fertile Ground was looking for things, and I decided to pick it up again,” she says. “I went to the Sylvia Beach Hotel [in Newport] and locked myself in a room for three days. Then I called up my friends.”
Grace Carter, who takes the role of Hermione, had performed in Mach’s The Yellow Wallpaper a few years ago. Young Perdita is played by the precociously talented Agatha Olson, who was in Artists Rep’s production of The Lost Boy. Mach rightly credits dramaturg Brian Meyers with an under-recognized skill at reading stage directions. And then there are the heavy hitters: Jacklyn Maddux, who’s simply magnificent here as the fiercely loyal Paulina; Luisa Sermol as a shepherd’s wife raising Perdita; and Mach’s husband, Bruce Burkhartsmeier, who brings wit, attitude and surprising emotional resonance to the part of the Bear.
IN THE WINTER’S TALE, THE BEAR APPEARS simply in one of the most famous/infamous stage directions in theater history: “Exit, pursued by a bear,” said of the Sicilian lord Antigonus just after he arrives on the (ahem) coast of Bohemia with the infant Perdita. We soon learn that the bear kills Antigonus, but for all the tragic symbolism of that example of nature’s wanton power, that stage direction has gone down more prominently in theater lore as a moment of unintended comedy.
Madonna of the Cat offers our carnivorous cousin a much-expanded role.
“As I started writing, he just became this character,” Mach says. “In my earliest draft he was going to be this connector between the worlds of the play, this kind of narrator. But then I whittled that away but didn’t want to get rid of the character. So I had to think about what his purpose is. And it’s to right a wrong: that he’s been relegated to just this stage direction.”
Burkhartsmeier, sounding like a lower-class Londoner awakened too soon from hibernation, grumbles about intrusions into his “critical area” and rails against the insulting notion that he “pursued” anybody. “Perfidy! Mendacity! And bullshit!” he cries. On the one hand, it’s a hilarious bit of comic relief sprinkled through the play, yet it also – much as in Shakespeare’s version – carries much symbolic weight.
“The Bear is like Nature with a capital N,” Mach says. “With him, you’re getting to the whole combination of the sacred and the profane.”
FOR ALL THAT, THE HEART OF MADONNA THE CAT is in a pair of female relationships, principally that between Hermione, a queen who has lost everything except her life, and Paulina, the friend that both saves and sequesters her.
“Paulina is the only thing that Hermione has,” Mach points out. “Not a lot of people write about women’s friendship, and I wanted to address that. Paulina’s the one who makes everything work.
“And then the other part of my imagination went to (the question of) who’s raising Perdita? Who was her mother figure?” Shakespeare tells us that Perdita has been found by a shepherd, and – poof! – she’s a marriageable young lady. Mach shows us something about mothering, step-parenting and, yes, friendship, in tender scenes between the growing girl and the aptly named Donna.
Fittingly, it was one of Mach’s friends, Sermol, who once pointed out to her that her plays tend to involve “strong women characters trying to get themselves out of a trap.” Consider it a credit to friendship, then, that “Madonna of the Cat” features strong women helping their friends out of traps and into the light of love and justice.
- Madonna of the Cat debuts at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 7, the final day for rollouts of new shows. There’ll be a live online talkback session immediately following Sunday’s premiere performance. All festival projects will be available through Feb. 15 to stream on Fertile Ground’s Facebook and YouTube channels.
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