The Winter's TaleIn 2009, Rebecca Taichman staged a magical production of Shakespeare’s TWELFTH NIGHT at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, NJ.  She showed an understanding and trust of the material that made the evening glorious and telling.  It is sad that that understanding and trust are not evident in her recent outing at McCarter, an unfocused, spare, and ugly production of one of Shakespeare’s lesser performed scripts, THE WINTER’S TALE which is now appearing in McCarter’s Matthew’s Theatre through April 21, 2013.

The main problem here is that the cast has been paired down with many actors doubling and tripling roles which can become confusing even for those who know the script.  Characters have disappeared and been combined which also weakens the storyline.  The layers that make Shakespeare’s work so rich are all but gone here.  It is a headfirst attack on the material instead of fully realized treatment of the script.   Taichman has also chosen to equate the rustics with witless morons, something that is supported by the ugly costuming by David Zinn when Shakespeare simply allows them to be naïve, unschooled, and sincere in comparison to many of the royals.  She has also removed the shepherdesses Dorcas and Mopsa who show that Perdita is royal just by their mere presence and actions and the comparisons that can be made between them.  Many of these lost reference points also help to confuse.  The lack of cast numbers also renders the “sheep shearing festival” less than festive.

The plot may be unfamiliar to many.  Leontes, King of Sicilia, goes suddenly mad and believes that his wife Hermione is carrying the child of his best friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia.  Although she is blameless, a fact that is supported by the Oracle of Delphi, Leontes still condemns her and proclaims that the daughter she has delivered, who is named Perdita, be taken far away and be left to the elements and wildlife.   Hermione collapses, and she is taken away by a woman of the court named Paulina who returns to announce that Hermione has died.  At that time, Mamillius, heir to the throne also dies of remorse because of his father’s actions.  Leontes is wracked with guilt.

Perdita is taken to Bohemia by Antigonus, a member of Leontes’ court and husband to Paulina, where he is promptly eaten by a bear.  Perdita is found by a shepherd and raised as his own.  Sixteen years pass, and Perdita grows into a charming young woman who is different from the other girls in her village.  This is noticed by Prince Florizel, son of Polixenes.  Polixenes learns of this relationship, and Florizel and Perdita flee to Sicilia where it is eventually disclosed that she is Leontes’ daughter whom he welcomes with open arms.  From here, there is a happy ending, and everyone ends happily except for Mamillius and Antigonus.

The evening belongs to Hannah Yelland as Hermione and Brent Carver as Camillo, a servant and advisor to Leontes.   Both deliver beautifully developed and honest characters.   There is no artifice in their delivery, no gimmicks or forced voices or line deliveries found in the performances of others throughout the evening.  This may also be that they are two of only three actors who embody only one character in this condensed cast.  The other, Sean Arbuckle who plays Polixenes also does a creditable job with a character who is there mostly to react to situations and cause change.  Polixenes is essential because he must be there to cause Leontes’ mistrust and be the impetus for Florizel and Perdita to flee to Sicilia.

The staging of the piece also contributes to the confusion.   Characters generally do not leave the playing area, so there is little to no change in costuming in either act, so it is often difficult to tell when an actor has become someone else.  This is especially true in the first act when the staging often resembles musical chairs.  When a scene ends, the cast wanders around the chairs or table in seemingly aimless circles which may expedite the evening but does nothing for clarity.

The physical production is also problematic here.  Zinn’s costuming, especially the rag-bag approach to the rustics, is generally bland in the first act and garish in the second.  Autolycus, who is a con-man, is dressed in a blue sateen suit with a fuchsia sequined cape – why?  Also, the actor was obviously told to leave the left shirttail out of his pants for some reason as it is glaringly in the same place a costume change – why?  The shepherds all look as though they dug through clothes donation bins in the dark to arrive at their costumes, and the entire effect harkens back to the bad Shakespearean productions of the 1980s.  They are rustics, not derelicts.

The set by Christine Jones is also questionable.  Although the two gray proscenium arches (with cabaret lighting around them – why?) are not obtrusive for the scenes in Sicilia, they certainly do not belong in the countryside of Bohemia.  One may have been a frame, but the second arch is too far upstage to not be a part of the action.  Also, the oval configuration of pendant lights that depict the court of Sicilia just stay there for the entire play.  In order for a unit set to work, it must be a logical part of all scenes – the arches and lighting are not.

The countryside of Bohemia is denoted by green fluorescent tubes lighting the blue-gray back wall with a large billboard depicting a landscape (nicely painted) leaned against the wall.  Although this is not stellar, it is moderately unobtrusive.  However, the addition of huge wooden butterflies on sticks (painted only on one side and black on the other – why?) and two-dimensional freestanding sheep prints on stage are affronting.  The butterflies look cumbersome, and the audience knows it is in the country and do not need the cheap indication of it.

There are other questions to be answered here as to why chairs are turned upside down and have mirrors or sky painted on their bottoms.  This, like so many other choices, seems to be made simply because the idea was “This will look different.”

The only positive constant in the physical production is the lighting by Christopher Akerlind.  He does attempt to make something of the uninviting space, and his lighting for the final scene is most effective.

After TWELFTH NIGHT and Taichman’s wonderfully bizarre offering of SLEEPING BEAUTY WAKES, this production of THE WINTER’S TALE is truly disappointing.   There are a few good performances on stage, but the questionable cutting and staging overshadow them.  I wanted to like it because I very much like this play, especially the romance offered in the second half.  It has often been called a problem play because of the huge shift in its mood.  I found myself moved by Yelland’s performance as well as the energies devoted to the production by the cast, many of whom who would have benefitted from less distracted direction that trusted the material.

Even with all of my complaints, it should be seen only because it is one of Shakespeare’s plays that is rarely performed in this country.  However, a caveat for all who go: read a synopsis of the play before you attend.  That way, you can fill in some of the gaps left by this production and not be as lost as many of those in the audience around me were.  As Mamillius says shortly before he dies, “A sad tale is best for winter,” and this is certainly a sad tale.