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Time is a character in “The Winter’s Tale,” and it not only speaks but takes a leap worthy of an Olympian. Seldom have I seen this jump as smoothly executed as it is in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s staging of the Bard’s late romance (at Willet Hall, United Parish in Brookline, through Jan. 3). Too often, when the play skips 16 years and relocates from oppressive Sicilia to sunny Bohemia, the audience might be forgiven for thinking it had returned from intermission to the wrong theater and a different play. In Melia Bensussen’s austere yet magical rendering for ASP, the mood swing seems less bipolar than utterly natural.
“The Winter’s Tale,” first performed in 1611, is in fact suspended in time. As has been pointed out, both the Delphic Oracle and the Russian Empire are referenced in the piece, which makes it atemporal as well as fantastical, redemptive yet troubling (not everybody makes it through the play’s crucible of jealousy and atonement alive). But for all its defiance of the Unities and plain credibility, “The Winter’s Tale” (which contains Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, “Exit pursued by a Beare”) is a beautiful story that borrows its “green-eyed monster” from “Othello,” its country rustics from a hundred pastorals and its moving if unlikely conclusion from both pagan and Christian mythologies.
At Actors’ Shakespeare Project, the play is stripped to its essentials, performed by just eight actors in an open (if dowdy) space, at the center of which is a sort of square, bounded (in Cristina Todesco’s design) by four metal columns sprouting abstract extensions. Characters may enter the playing space by breaking through white ribbons on a raised stage, but not much else happens there. The columns sometimes play minor havoc with sightlines for parts of the audience (seated on three sides of the playing space), but they also form a sort of focal box that is effectively deployed. And as spare as the scenic design is, sound designer Dave Remedios supplies an almost continuous line of otherworldly music that is both ghostly and seamless. (Indeed, the diaphanously caped figure — not exactly a ghost — of the wronged Hermione seems to preside over the second half of the play.)
In ASP’s production, the play begins with an admonition borrowed from the final act: “It is required/ You do awake your faith.” The setting is stark Sicilia, shaved of a few scenes and some minor characters. King Leontes and his very pregnant wife, Hermione, are trying to persuade Leontes’ childhood pal, King Polixenes of Bohemia, who has been visiting, to stay another week. When Leontes’ urgings don’t do the trick, he asks his wife to try, then becomes almost immediately and irrationally suspicious of Hermione and Polixenes’ tête-á-tête.
In Bensussen’s staging and artistic director Allyn Burrows’ performance, Leontes does not seem completely unhinged. The couple are indeed “paddling palms,” “meeting noses,” “leaning cheek to cheek.” Moreover, Mara Sidmore’s Hermione, though so pregnant she requires assistance lowering herself onto a bench or rising from it, is swathed in a white gown that looks made of whipped cream (the mostly Edwardian costumes are by Mary Lauve), and she’s as girlishly flirtatious as Nora in “A Doll’s House.” For his part, Burrows is a Leontes less bellicose than quietly bullying, violent but silky, even as he shoves his lords around and graphically derides his wife as “sluiced” and “slippery.”
Of course, Leontes will prove as murderously obstinate as he is paranoid, savagely rejecting not only Hermione’s entreaties, poignantly rendered by Sidmore, but also her innocent baby and the Delphic Oracle’s declaration of her chastity. And Nigel Gore’s grizzled Polixenes, though inculpable here, will prove a frightful tyrant to his own kin when the play shifts to Bohemia, where the banished babe has been miraculously preserved by a couple of bumpkins and brought to a regal if countrified ripeness.
One reason the play seems so of a piece, it might be argued, is that the actors are double cast, occupying one persona in Sicilia, another in Bohemia. But, really, no one misses all the garlanded, rusticating details of the sheep shearing that opens the fourth act. (And why, one might ask, when so much silly revelry has been extricated, do the disguised Polixenes and Camillo look like escapees from “Fiddler on the Roof”?) Much more engaging is the resurrection of Steven Barkhimer’s Antigonus (the unfortunate courtier pursued by that bear) as “rogue” Autolycus, doing some barefaced fleecing of his own.
Indeed, Barkhimer, a multifaceted musician, provides various vocal and instrumental accompaniment in both locales, including reciting young Prince Mamillius’ lines while suggesting his child’s voice by striking the bells of a small percussion instrument. But he brings both insouciance and original tunes to thieving peddler Autolycus’ ditties and sticky-fingered confidence to his jovial separation of the Young Shepherd of everything but his underwear. I have seen my share of unfunny Autolycuses, but this is not such a one.
But the most enchanting part of “The Winter’s Tale” is its unfailingly moving conclusion. How fitting, then, that it be presided over by one of Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s finest players, Marianna Bassham, contained yet powerful as sorceress and Pit bull Paulina, the only person in Sicilia passionate enough to stand up to the uncorked Leontes. The mysterious, expiable reunion that caps the play is less enacted than orchestrated, and Bassham’s commanding yet sensitive Paulina squeezes from it every sweet note of muted rapture, forgiveness and regret.
Carolyn Clay was for many years the theater editor and chief drama critic for the Boston Phoenix. She is a past winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism.
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