The earliest recorded reference to The Winter’s Tale is a 1611 performance at the Globe. Letting my romanticism momentarily override my scholasticism, I find so many elements of the play that echo Shakespeare’s own later life. If it was indeed written around 1611, it would mark 14-15 years (not 16, alas that would be just too perfect) since the death of his only son Hamnet at age 11. With perhaps a sense of nostalgia, Shakespeare adapts his early-career rival Robert Greene’s 1580’s tragedy Pandosto and gives it a happy ending in which Leonatus, having done his penance, has his broken family and royal lineage (partially) restored, perhaps with the hope that his life would imitate his art when shortly afterward he retired and headed back to his long-estranged wife and adult daughters in Stratford.
Labeled as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” high tragedy abruptly and jarringly gives way midway through to pastoral low comedy, and the pivot happens precisely upon his most (in)famous stage direction: “Exit, Pursued by a Bear.”
Before the pivot? Passionate jealousy, betrayal, court intrigue, murderous plots, show trials, Delphic Oracles, a young prince dying of a broken heart, abandoned babies, shipwrecks and the aforementioned bear. After? Shepherds, country fairs, dancing satyrs, courting maidens, callow lovers, pickpocketing rogues, magical statues and forgiveness (not to mention the passage of 16 years). Brutal reality and whimsical fantasy sit uneasily side by side.
Winter’s Tale is the favorite Shakespeare play of my steady theatre date, as well as our mutual theatre friend we happened to be seated next to. I don’t know if I can extrapolate this to the greater theatre community at large, but these two at least are very passionate about it. The big test is how people can weather the pivot; one either buys into it fully or finds the jolt too jarring. The other test is at the end, in how the production handles the [spoiler alert] return of Hermione. As for me? Jarring changes in tone and uneasy reconciliation? Life’s like that.
Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, when I last checked in on them a decade ago, was a plucky little company performing at a community center in Ellicott City. Since I’d been away, to put it mildly, they’ve come up in the world. This is my first visit to their downtown Baltimore home (the envy of numerous Equity companies, I’ll wager) and it has a wonderfully welcoming vibe, with an open bar during the show (though the clatter is occasionally distracting) and a playroom for parents to bring their unruly toddlers.
They draw largely from their resident acting company, and highlights among the large ensemble are many. High schooler Kelsey Murray is a lovely, grounded presence as Perdita and Clay Vanderbeek charmingly awkward as her beau Florizel. Young Ian Murray (any relation to Kelsey?) is delightful as Mamillius, and with his youthful exuberance and heartbreakingly early end he carries the conscience of the play. Brendan Kennedy’s Autolycus is a younger and more handsome rogue than I recall from past productions. Gregory Burgess and James Jager are a fun pair as Shepherds Sr and Jr., and among the Sicilian royalty, Valerie Fenton is vulnerable and solid as the wronged Hermione.
The Winter’s Tale
closes April 1, 2018
Details and tickets
They don’t stray too far from tradition in costuming and staging, and as in the days of the Globe, rely on the architecture of the building for the majority of the set. The cast do sing and strum during the pre-show and intermission (and later, see below). It’s a spirited production if not all that edgy, though it doesn’t necessarily need to be, the play’s structure is sufficient. The cast capably navigates their way through the text, though I found myself drawn more to the times when they wandered far from shore (Jess Rassp’s Bread & Puppet-inspired giant bear puppet, complete with glowing eyes, towers over poor Antigonus) than when they leaned a little too heavily on oratory in the more famous speeches (“Too hot! Too hot!”, “What studied torments…” etc)
I wish director Isabelle Anderson pruned the script more because at certain points the action dragged considerably, more than my affection for the play could support. The length of the evening’s events were stretched further still, albeit by circumstances beyond their control: an elderly patron took ill and the play had to pause for some 20 minutes while EMT’s tended to her. Kudos to James Jager who pulled out a guitar and serenaded the crowd – in character as the young shepherd – during the downtime, and to the stage management team for handling the situation with consummate professionalism. It’s live theatre, what can you do? And my best wishes to the stricken audience member.
Well worth the trip to Baltimore. Plenty of good restaurants and pubs to choose from beforehand, beyond the Cheesecake Factory and other national chains near the water. Make a night of it. And then go see the Folger’s version. Compare and contrast, 500 words, double-spaced if you please.
The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare. Cast: Jose Guzman, Valerie Fenton, Ian Murray, Kelsey Murray, Scott Alan Small, Frank B Moorman, Lesley Malin, Nello DiBlasio, James Jager, Greta Boeringer, Molly Moores, Brendan Edward Kennedy, Clay Vanderbeek, Gregory Burgess, Michael P Sullivan, Elana Michelle. Produced by Lesley Malin. Directed by Isabelle Anderson. Production Manager: Kyle Rudgers. Stage Manager: Lauren Engler . Assistant Director: Erin Bone Steele. Technical Direction/Scenic Design/Sound Design: Daniel O’Brien. Lighting Design: Katie McCreary. Costume Design: Heather C Jackson. Composer: Amy Domingues. Music Director: Grace Srinivasan. Choreography: Nellie K Glover. Properties Design: Mollie Singer. A Chesapeake Shakespeare Company production. Reviewed by John Geoffrion.
[Small World Alert: Jess Rassp went to school in Boston. Shortly after relocating to Baltimore a few years ago, we convinced her to come back briefly to design costumes and masks for my theatre company’s production of The Love of the Nightingale, the cast of which included former CSC Board member Jenny Leopold.]