“It is required / you do awake your faith,” pleads Paulina to her king, Leontes at the end of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. This precept, the need for faith, belief, is the guiding force behind We Happy Few’s Fringe production of this Shakespearean love song.
In brief, The Winter’s Tale is the story of a king who jealously banishes his best friend (also a king), indicts his Queen who dies of grief, and orders his newborn daughter abandoned to the elements. Then, in a series of pastoral hijinks, his abandoned daughter is rescued and later united in secret matrimony to the son of the banished king. This forces the two regents to reconcile in fond memory of the deceased (?) queen.
Often thought of as one part tragedy and one part comedy, The Winter’s Tale is categorized as a “romance” by scholars and as “absurd” and “fractured” by director Hannah Todd in her program note. Todd has lovingly embraced these elements in her staging. For her, such absurdity does not necessarily preclude magic, provided one is able to suspend one’s inner cynic long enough to let belief thrive.
To that effect, she mostly succeeds. Todd, who is also We Happy Few’s Founding Artistic Director, has committed the company to “stripped down, small cast, ensemble productions.” In The Winter’s Tale, she has taken that commitment to new heights. An ensemble of only six (6!) actors plays every character, using a series of theatrical on-stage costume changes, designed with helpful contrast by Julie Cray. That and a healthy dose of winks to the audience helps to keep track of who’s who. It works, for the most part, well.
The Winter’s Tale
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Hannah Todd
Details and tickets
This sense of theatricality also infuses the scenic design (Dean Leong). Leong has traded theatre blacks for sheer linens and placed his costume racks and prop tables offstage but in plain sight. Those costumes and props often then make their way inside white acting blocks, which break apart and become various furniture pieces throughout. Exposing the pulleys and weights like this often serves to remind the audience that our beliefs in this space are as important as the characters’ – it is through our suspension of disbelief that the magic of the theatre works at all. Then again, in a space as small as Flashpoint Gallery, exposed pulleys can often squeak and distract when bumps offstage interrupt action onstage (though there is some clever offstage foley as well.)
Regardless, it’s the actors’ efforts that are the heart of this production. With each cast member playing at least two and at most five characters (plus some sheep), there are that many more reasons to enjoy the ensemble. Standouts include Katy Carkuff as Paulina and the Shepherd. Carkuff’s Paulina is graceful and poised, but carries a striking sense of conviction to contrast well with her bumbling, clownish Shepherd. William Vaughan as Florizel is open and earnest, reminding us that belief in love need not be complicated however absurd it may seem. Kerry McGee as Autolycus provided some slapstick musical comedy and misanthropic capers. Though I experienced some minor confusion among the supernumeraries during the more high-paced forest scenes (remember, there are only six actors), the ensemble’s antics were engaging enough that the story mostly crept through.
While there may have been a few hiccups along the way, We Happy Few’s The Winter’s Tale is buoyed appropriately by their unwavering belief in the magic of live performance. Fans of Shakespeare and Fringe alike, best believe they won’t have to look hard for something to enjoy.