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If Ever Two Were One

By James Yeara

The Winter’s Tale

By William Shakespeare, directed by Kevin G. Coleman

Shakespeare & Company, Founders Theatre, through Sept. 5

The problem with The Winter’s Tale is Time. Sixteen years pass between the tragic first half of the play, which centers on insanely jealous King Leontes, a tyrant who causes three deaths, and the last half of the play, which features pastoral songs, dances, disguises, and a forbidden romance leading to a comedy’s happy ending: marriage. Shakespeare even introduces a character, “Time,” who provides the exposition setting up the latter half of the play and recaps the former.

In tone, mood, setting, language, and action, the first half of The Winter’s Tale is like a fairy tale of the court (part Charles Perrault “Bluebeard”) by way of Sophocles (the first three acts reach a thunderous climax on the words of the Delphic oracle), while the second half is a rustic folk tale, in which “they all lived happily ever after.” Shakespeare’s Time seems to keep the two halves of The Winter’s Tale from ever making a whole, as the first half’s tragic twain can’t meet the comedy of the second half.

The brilliance of director Kevin G. Coleman’s The Winter’s Tale is the weaving of comedy into the first three acts and the underscoring of mad jealousy in the last two acts. Coleman makes a unified whole out of what is disparaged as Shakespeare’s weakness in this late “Romance,” a term scholars slap on The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, Cymbeline, and Pericles as they are hybrids of comedy and tragedy.

Coleman’s The Winter’s Tale isn’t two separate plays joined together only by program notes, but a subtle work of art and nature harmonized into a melding of laughter and tears. It is a rare achievement. By design, the elements of fairy tale and comedy creep into the tragedy of King Leontes’ (the great Jonathan Epstein in a return to Shakespeare & Company after a six year separation) court in Sicilia, while the madness of Leontes creeps momentarily into his boyhood friend Polixenes (the protean Johnny Lee Davenport), King of Bohemia, during a pastoral festival. The union of disparate elements, reflected throughout the play in the moments the audience laughs or stifles sniffles, shows itself in the magnificent concluding scene under Coleman’s deft direction.

Patrick Brennan’s courtly set design for Sicilia—ornate double doors upleft and upright, white framed columns to either side—coupled with costume designer Kara D. Midlam’s seeming mélange of 18th century and early 19th century waistcoats, cuffs, bodices, lace, leather boots, frockcoats and gowns create a fairy tale setting for the first half of The Winter’s Tale. The first sounds the audience hears in Michael Pfeiffer’s rich aural tapestry, a fencing match between Polixenes and Leontes, are soon matched by the wooden swords of Leontes’ young son, Mamillius (Parker Bell-Devaney, who, remarkably, steals scenes from Epstein and lives to tell the tale), and his nanny.

The connection between father and son is continually emphasized. When the comely queen of Sicilia, Hermione (a ravishing Elizabeth Aspenlieder), entices Polixenes to stay longer in Sicilia, Leontes plays with his son. Mamillius mirrors his movements, even stepping on his toes, as the king’s puzzlement evolves into suspicion about his wife’s intentions with his friend. It’s a masterful series of moments between Mamillius and Leontes, garnering laughs even as the tragedy is set in motion.

And when Leontes’ imagination drives him into lethal jealousy, initiating a plot to poison the incredulous Polixenes, thwarted by good counselor Camillo (a stalwart John Aaron McCabe), Epstein is in full command of talents. Thunderstorms could take lessons from Epstein, and Aspenlieder matches him. Accused of adultery after giving birth to a daughter, her Hermione stands as the very soul of the loving wife, the wronged woman, and the noble queen. Her monologues during the trial, especially “Sir, spare your threats,” move the audience to empathize with her impossible situation.

Leontes’ headlong march into tragic madness—Hermione dies swooning in the dock at the news of Mamillius’ death and her newborn’s sentence to be abandoned on the wild shores of Bohemia—is interrupted by a decree from Apollo of Hermione’s innocence, accompanied by literal thunder and lightning, and then by Paulina’s (a magisterial Corinna May) more metaphorical variety. “What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me?” she taunts, continually reminding the now penitent Leontes of the deaths for which he is responsible. May wrings rueful laughter from the audience with each apology.

In the subsequent scenes in Bohemia, the famous “Exit, pursued by a bear” stage direction is hyperbolically followed, and the comic gold supplied by the rustics—Malcolm Ingram as the Old Shepherd, Wolfe Coleman as his son Young Shepherd, and Jason Asprey as the arch rogue Autolycus—confirms that no acting troupe works as well and fully with an audience as does Shakespeare & Company.

The moments are bridged nicely by Time (Scott Renzoni). Attired like an off-duty courtier, he picks up the rustic hourglass and staff to combine Sicila and Bohemia, the slapstick and the tragedy, the court and the country. By play’s end the weaving of the fragments is complete, and the happy ending seems to depend on the disparate deaths to make the play whole. It’s a unity that the audience heartily applauds, even as members wipe away a few tears. Shakespeare wouldn’t have it any other way.

 


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