Rare Production of 'Winter's Tale' Fails to Achieve Potential

Photo: Richard Aiello and Kerry Gudjohnsen in Actors Ensemble of Berkeley's production of Shakespeare's 'The Winter's Tale.'
Actors Ensemble Of Berkeley/Courtesy
Richard Aiello and Kerry Gudjohnsen in Actors Ensemble of Berkeley's production of Shakespeare's 'The Winter's Tale.'

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Photo: Tavis Kammet and Jaime Lee Currier in Actors Ensemble of Berkeley's production of Shakespeare's 'The Winter's Tale.'   

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As one of Shakespeare's lesser-known plays, "The Winter's Tale" is a daring choice for Actors Ensemble of Berkeley. Dealing in the currency of unfounded rage, immense sorrow and impossibly happy endings, "The Winter's Tale" is not as widely performed or interpreted as many of Shakespeare's other works. In the play, Polixenes, King of Bohemia, is a guest of Leontes, King of Sicilia. When Polixenes at last announces that he shall return to his kingdom, Leontes laments his friend's departure and unsuccessfully entreats him to stay longer. Leontes' wife, the Queen Hermione, then tries her hand at convincing Polixenes to stay longer - a feat that she accomplishes with remarkable ease. Leontes is flummoxed as to Hermione's seemingly great influence over his friend, and soon after comes to believe that the two must be having an affair (clearly, the only rational conclusion). What follows is a descent into accusation, madness and unprecedented cruelty.

Though it is not uncommon for Shakespeare plays to be set outside of historical context, this particular production, directed by Jeremy Cole, has no decisive overall sentiment; this show seems not to know exactly what it wants to do with itself. For example, the citizens of two kingdoms, Sicilia and Bohemia, are differentiated in this production by costume. The Sicilians don Mafia suits and the Bohemians, flowing, flower-child hippie clothes - including but not limited to a cameo appearance by a pair of Birkenstocks. There is something at once hilarious and infuriating about this decision. For those in the audience who get the joke, it might prompt a momentary chuckle (after all, it is sort of funny) but at the same time it prompts the question of how much this performance wants its audience to take it seriously.

The intentional comic relief comes in the form of pastoral buffoonery. Jaime Lee Currier's portrayal of the clownish highway swindler Autolycus has a great element of physical comedy, though the part is a bit long-winded. The characters of the shepherd and his son boast hillbilly accents and country mannerisms, which, like a large part of the production, oscillate between being genuinely funny and simply over-the-top absurd and somewhat out of place.

This unwillingness to take a definitive interpretive standpoint might have worked were the acting in general strong enough to really bring the audience into the emotional turmoil of the play. Leontes' (Richard Aiello) descent into insanity is characterized more with cartoonish, frustrated hand-waving than real sentiments of rage or despair. Neither do we particularly sympathize with him at the moment he realizes that his jealous rage has become the instigator of tragedy. "The Winter's Tale" is a psychologically intense script that spans all ranges of the emotional spectrum, but for some reason, in this production, the actors - and subsequently the audience - just don't quite get there.

The women in the play are possibly this production's greatest strength: Kerry Gudjohnsen's Hermione is calm and regal delivering her speeches, which are some of the most moving in the play, and certainly the most moving in this production. Likewise Holly Bradford's steadfast Paulina is memorable as a veritable fountain of "womanly rashness" (also known as telling it like it is).

"The Winter's Tale" is a complicated, subplot-rich play that takes place over a span of two generations. While it is somewhat of a treat to have the opportunity to see it performed live, this production, rather than play off this multiplicative nature in an enlightening way, doesn't do anything particularly novel. And what is actually good is simply spread too thin over the complex script to make it convincing.

Arielle Little is the lead theater critic. Contact her at [email protected]

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