The Winter's Tale
Actors' Shakespeare Project has brought an absorbing and affecting revival of one of Shakespeare's late romances to the stage.
How do you solve a problem like The Winter's Tale, one of Shakespeare's late romances, which has occasionally also been branded a "problem play"? There are, of course, a set of infamous stage directions involving a bear, but it is the touch of magic at the play's end that has unraveled even the most sturdy productions. Actors' Shakespeare Project overcomes that obstacle by employing director Melia Bensussen, whose production at Willet Hall at United Parish, in Brookline, is about as good as it gets.
Leontes, the King of Sicily (a formidable Allyn Burrows), becomes convinced that his pregnant wife, Hermione (Mara Sidmore), has had an affair with his longtime best friend, Polixenes, the King of Bohemia (Nigel Gore). His paranoia and jealousy have even made him absolutely certain that the child his wife is carrying is not his own. Polixenes flees for Bohemia when he is tipped off that Leontes wants him dead, and Hermione is arrested on charges of adultery. In jail, she gives birth to a daughter, who is taken to the king by a noblewoman named Paulina (an extraordinary Marianna Bassham) in hopes that the sight of the child will draw him out of his unfounded rage. Paulina is unsuccessful and — this is where the bear comes in — the child is abandoned in the woods while Hermione dies (or does she?) in jail. So distraught by the ordeal, Leontes' son, Mamillius, also dies. Realizing too late his mistakes, his tyrannical jealousy leaves him with nothing.
With the play's dark and dramatic first half behind, Act 2 opens 16 years later in Bohemia, where we learn that Leontes' daughter, Perdita (Austyn Davis), has survived after all. She has also serendipitously fallen in love with Prince Florizel (a dashing Felix Teich), Polixenes' son. After quite a bit of scheming, they all travel to Sicily. It might just be time for reconciliation. The generally lighthearted and bright second half takes another odd turn, when in the play's final scene, Paulina unveils a statue of Hermione; a statue of heart-stopping realism that also happens to depict a Hermione roughly 16 years older than the last time Leontes has seen her. He swears that her lips are too realistic to be of stone, and though he longs to touch her, Paulina makes sure he doesn't succeed. Yet, in the final moments of the play (which can make or break the entire production), the statue comes to life and Leontes reunites with Hermione and their daughter, Perdita.
It's a great deal of fun to see the accomplished Allyn Burrows play both ends of the spectrum as Leontes and the old shepherd. Steven Barkhimer's Autoclycus is riotous, with a brilliant bit of pickpocket choreography opening up the second part. As the noble and headstrong Paulina, Marianna Bassham is a maelstrom of magnificent force and range. Nigel Gore is an excellent Polixenes. As Hermione, Mara Sidmore brings a playful, vibrant earthiness to the role, and is part of the reason that this Winter's Tale is ultimately the tearjerker that it is.
Bensussen has crafted a production that doesn't apologize for the disparity in tone between the two parts, and instead relishes the differences. Having most of her actors portraying two roles shows off the cast's versatile talents deliciously. And her direction of the final scene – in which the statue of Hermione is revealed after 16 years – allows for the interpretation that, while magic could be on hand, Paulina also could have hidden her away all these years. As envisioned by Bensussen, the scene provides a level of impact and emotion that ripples throughout the audience.
Most of the action plays out on the floor in front of the proper stage at Willet Hall, but the space is used exquisitely and simply. Cristina Todesco's sparse set is stylish, and when paired with John Malinowski's brilliantly detailed lighting, the effect is completely cinematic.
This fulfilling production categorically hits every emotion right on the head and in the heart. Bensussen's direction has an element of graceful effortlessness that allows the story to unfold gently and realistically. "A sad tale's best for winter," the ill-fated Mamillius says early in the play. It's true, and thanks to Melia Bensussen, a spectacular one is playing in Brookline.