Of all the Shakespearean plays in the canon, none makes less sense than The Winter’s Tale, with its two-part structure, rapid change of mood, and uncertain motivation for the actions of the main characters. And then, there’s the problems of dealing with that famous stage direction for the character of Antigonus: “Exit, pursued by a bear,” and the abstract character of Time, who serves as narrator to bridge the 16-year hiatus in the play.
Happily, A.R.T. has brought in the Macedonian director, Slobodan Unkovski, a theatrical wizard of supreme imagination, to tie together the plot strings and inconsistencies. In his mind, a mysterious power drives the play, leaving the audience to fill in the blanks with a kind of dreaming. Unkovski and his designer, Meta Hocevar, have created a two-part environment, with Sicilia represented as a stripped-down, black-walled, totalitarian state, which brings Mussolini-era Italy to mind. In contrast, the pastoral scenes of Bohemia are played out against an orange sky drop, hanging behind a multi-colored, patchwork ground cloth, cut by slits which disgorge various body parts when the clowns come on stage. The characters who live in this country break into song and dance at nearly every turn of the story.
Time, played by Benjamin Evett, is personified as a Voodoo Man, dressed in white suit, long coat, and dreadlocks, and twirling a glass wand lighted at both ends to visualize the underlying theme of magic. Although he only has one speech, the director weaves him through the unfolding of events, as if to suggest his fantastic jumps and spins control the rhythm of the earth turning on its axis, the march of the planets through the heavens, and the passing of the years. As for the bear, well, you’ll have to see the production.
Unkovski has been blessed with two major actors in the leading roles: Henry Woronicz, a veteran of the Oregon
Shakespeare Festival as Leontes, King of Sicilia, and the charismatic John Douglas Thompson as his childhood friend and dear companion, Polixenes, King of Bohemia. Woroniocz and Thompson have a beautiful command of the language, never losing meaning or breath through the long passages. They have taken the tone of their respective kingdoms as cue to their characters: Woronicz is the more domineering, a dictator, but ruled by inner demons; Thompson plays the languid nature of Polixenes, a man with a live-and-let-live philosophy, until he inexplicably turns on his son in the second half of the play.
Another actor of noted–blessed with film-star good looks, a marvelous fluidity of moving, and excellent sense of the poetry he speaks–is Jovan Rameau, a second-year student at the A.R.T. Institute, in the role of Florizel, son of Polixenes. Tom Derrah makes Autolycus, the schemer, into a snake oil salesman of considerable eccentricity. A.R.T. regulars Remo Airaldi and Jeremy Geidt as the comic father-son team, Karen MacDonald as an authorative Paulina, and Alvin Epstein as the incorruptible courtier and friend to both monarchs add a solid underpinning to the director’s concept.
More perplexing is the choice of the Yugoslavian actress, Mirjana Jokovic, in the central role of Hermione, the queen of Leontes. She has a chameleon-like manner that allows her to transform in startling ways from beloved Queen to accused adulteress, and then to statue in the final scene, but her diction sounds so labored that it sets the listener on edge.
Unkovski has tried to connect The Winter’s Tale to the 20th century by presenting the climax as if it were a scene from an experimental contemporary drama. The dilemma of the play–the supposed happy ending after Leontes’ unfounded jealousy has caused the banishing of his infant daughter, the trial of his virtuous wife, and the death of his young son 16 years earlier–has never been easy to accept simply because no amount of theatrical legerdemain can bring the child back from the grave. The final moments in this production, however, are stunning, staged as if Samuel Beckett had stepped in to update Shakespeare’s ending with an existentialist statement on the futility of trying to change the past.