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DramaWatch: A summer ‘Winter’s Tale’

Portland Shakespeare Project gives a "Play On" twist to a tale of jealousy and redemption. Plus openings, closings, and a farewell to Peter Brook.

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From left: Gary Powell (Old Shepherd), Josh Weinstein (Autolycus), Andrés Alcala (Clown) in Portland Shakespeare Project’s “The Winer’s Tale.” Photo: David Kinder

Among the plays of William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale never has been one of the most popular or oft-produced. Split between a drama of royal jealousy and vengeance in the first half and a pastoral romp in the second, its wild swing in tone can be confounding. Midway through, the narrative makes an awkward 16-year leap. Motivations are obscure and resolutions can seem abrupt.

“It is an odd play,” Jeanette Winterson, who adapted the tale into a 2015 novel, said to The New York Times. “It’s almost as if Shakespeare couldn’t be bothered to finish it.”

But to Portland Shakespeare Project’s Michael Mendelson, The Winter’s Tale is very much a play for our time.

“I was doing some research about The Winter’s Tale – ironically, just before the plague,” he says in reference to the Covid pandemic, “mostly because of a President who shall be left unnamed. What you have in it are conspiracy theories, misogyny, abuse of power – all brought on by one man’s ideas about what’s going on that actually have nothing to do with the truth.” As the story goes about righting those wrongs, it reveals itself as “a play about rebirth, redemption and honor.”

And much as in the play that rebirth starts to take place after a long interregnum, this Winter’s Tale, directed by Mendelson, serves now as a post-pandemic (loosely speaking) restart for Portland Shakespeare Project. 

Philip Guevra as the jealousy-wracked King Leontes. Photo: David Kinder

Helping to make this a potentially more popular version, this production uses a contemporary-language adaptation by Tracy Young, commissioned as part of Play On Shakespeare, a program that began under the umbrella of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

(Young, long a close collaborator with former OSF artistic director Bill Rauch, was at the center of several fascinating shows there. She delivered an almost impossibly hilarious high-wire comedy as adapter/director of The Servant of Two Masters and was co-director and co-adaptor with Rauch on the wildly ambitious meta-theatrical experiment Madea/Macbeth/Cinderella. She also directed Luis Alfaro’s Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner and her own adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time – perhaps the most baffling and disappointing shows I’ve ever seen in Ashland.)

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 involves that 16-year gap, a change of scenery to Bohemia, a shepherd girl of mysterious origin, young love, Leontes’ grieving repentance, Polixenes having a snit of his own, and much plotting by various parties. 

Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, a Portland theater professor who serves as the Shakespeare Project’s scholar-in-residence, wrote about the Winterson novelization for The New Yorker, and called The Winter’s Tale “a mashup of disparate modes, reflecting the Jacobean taste for tragicomedy. … Can the children’s love heal their parents’ strife? It’s pastoral romance grafted onto royal tragedy, As You Like It giving Othello a shot at redemption.”

From left: Miriam Schwartz as Perdita, Josh Weinstein as Autolycus, Lucy Paschall as Peasant, Tyler Hunt as Dorcus, Gary Powell as the Old Shepherd. Photo: David Kinder

And Young, for her part, made a case for the true value of The Winter’s Tale, disjunctions and all, in an interview with the Folger Shakespeare Library site Shakespeare & Beyond: “The play is a reminder that we have many paradoxes and contradictions within which we have to exist, and that life is a joyful problem. So many quantum leaps of madness at the beginning and then so many quantum leaps of forgiveness at the end, and still the humanity in the play rings true, which is the genius of Shakespeare. … It was only as I started dealing with the play on a line-by-line basis as a translator that I really noticed the quirkiness of the emotional structure of the play, and how it is really jagged but truthful.”

“I love the Play On translations,” says Mendelson, who directed a Zoom reading-and-analysis session of The Winter’s Tale with Young a few years ago and also performed the role of Leontes in a New York showing of Play On adaptations. “They allow the language to be more immediate. … What they do brilliantly is (do) all the dramaturgical work for you. They break down the archaic language and the archaic jokes; they don’t remove them, they make it so you can enter into them more easily.”

The flattened stage

The aforementioned Folger Shakespeare Library is in Washington, D.C., but its 2018 production of The Winter’s Tale had an Oregon connection, having been directed by Aaron Posner, who grew up in Eugene and has directed shows for Portland Center Stage such as his adaptations of Sometimes a Great Notion and The Chosen.

Opening

Clark Gesner’s musicalization of the “Peanuts” comic strip, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, gets a staging at Broadway Rose, directed by Dan Murphy and with the reliably engaging James Sharinghousen as the titular round-headed kid.

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Sponsor
Bag & Baggage Theater Productions Shakespeare Hillsboro Oregon

Here’s one you don’t see all the time: Lady Be Good, an early comedy hit by George & Ira Gershwin (and originally a star vehicle for Fred Astaire and his sister Adele, in 1924). Eugene’s Shedd Theatricals presents the show that first brought the world “Fascinating Rhythm.”

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The Ashland New Plays Festival returns to live performance with a workshop showing of Stains, an autobiographical coming-of-age comedy by Korean-American playwright Sarah Cho, directed by Portlander Lava Alapai.

Closing

It’s nearly time for the acclaimed musical Rent to move out of Portland Center Stage.

Housecleaning

This could be fun! Portland Center Stage has decided to hold a prop sale, clearing out some of its stores of furnishings and the like from stage sets past. I once attended a similar sort of warehouse sale involving Oregon Shakespeare Festival costumes, which turned into something like a theatrical version of a locust swarm. Sofas probably won’t cause quite as much excitement as period frocks, but if you want the best selection you probably should arrive early.

Second-hand news

The biggest news in the theater world recently has been the death of the famed director Peter Brook. His innovative theories and memorable productions are recounted in a fine, thorough obituary in The Guardian, and another in The New York Times. Especially revealing is an interview on the Folger Shakespeare Library site, in which Brook recounts one of his earliest productions:


“I was an avid reader and of course very soon the works of Shakespeare came off the shelf and into my hands, and I was absolutely amazed. All the adventure stories, everything I’d read, they all disappeared in front of this marvel. At the same time, I had a little toy theater. It had a little curtain and there were little painted sets, and I could make further myself. Then there were little figures that you could push, either with your finger or with long wired sticks.

Peter Brook in 2009. Photo: John Thaxter/Wikimedia Commons

“And I decided that I would do on my stageI suppose I couldn’t have been more than sevenI would do a production of Hamlet. My poor parents who were brought up in a feeling that you must never, never suppress any instinct of young children—’This may be a budding genius…’ So when I announced to my parents, ‘Come down and watch,’ I put out two seats. I stood behind the little stage with a copy of Hamlet in my hands and in a little squeaky, seven or eight-year-old voice I started reading the entire play. It’s impossible to imagine the agony for loving parents who have to sit still. They can’t do anything but…” 

The best line I read this week

“The line between the reality that is photographed because it seems beautiful to us and the reality that seems beautiful because it has been photographed is very narrow. If you take a picture of Pierluca because he’s building a sand castle, there is no reason not to take his picture while he’s crying because the castle has collapsed, and then while the nurse consoles him by helping him find a seashell in the sand. The minute you start saying of something, ‘Ah, how beautiful! We must photograph it!’ you are already close to the view of the person who thinks that everything that is not photographed is lost, as if it had never existed, and that therefore, in order really to live, you must photograph as much as you can, and to photograph as much as you can you must either live in the most photographable way possible, or else consider photographable every moment in your life. The first course leads to stupidity; the second to madness.”

— Italo Calvino, appearing to presage the Instagram age, in a 1950s short story, “The Adventure of a Photographer.”

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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