Shakespeare may be best known for his haunting tragedies, swelling histories, and light comedies, but hiding behind his greatest hits are what Shakespeare scholars call “the late romances.” This set of his plays blur genre and often mix comedy with drama, humor with tragedy. Of this lesser-performed subgroup, “The Tempest” is the most popular. “The Winter’s Tale” is perhaps the least performed of the already infrequently performed “late romances.”
After seeing Arin Arbus’ production of “The Winter’s Tale” at Theatre for a New Audience, it is easy to see why this is not one of the more popular Shakespeare plays. “The Winter’s Tale” is a bizarre sort of play that seemingly doesn’t know what it wants to be. Unlike any other Shakespeare play, it has two completely distinct halves, set 16 years and an entire country apart. For once, Shakespeare threw out the unity of time, eschewing his usual model of having the action of the play take place within a few days.
“The Winter’s Play” is therefore challenging for a director. It often feels like two different plays. The first half has an adultery trial, Apollo’s oracle at Delphi, and characters dropping dead; the second half has a clown, a few shepherds, and sheep-sheering party. Arbus’ direction feeds into this dichotomy, but perhaps this is for the best — any attempt to make the two parts of the play feel unified often fail. So Arbus’ solution was to create two completely distinct worlds: a stark white, snow-filled, politically paranoid Sicily, and a green, lush, rural Bohemia. The former is done in the style of a great tragedy, approaching “Othello” even, while the later mimics the forest comedies like “As You Like It.”
Significant credit here must be given to the set designer, Riccardo Hernandez, and the lighting designer, Marcus Doshi, who made both of the worlds feel completely fleshed out. The large amounts of precipitation — be it snow or autumnal leaves — transformed the space with some enjoyable theatricality. (Though the occasional snow flake and leaf randomly falling throughout the show was certainly distracting.) In a further attempt to differentiate the Sicily section with the Bohemia section, costume designer Emily Rebholz had a dark, 1940s inspired aesthetic for the first half and a bright and colorful 1960s vibe for the second portion. The costumes here were a valiant effort but felt ungrounded and unintegrated, forcibly setting the play in a period when it was otherwise atemporal.
The cast was led by Anatol Yusef is the jealous King Leontes, Kelly Curran as his dutiful wife Hermoine, Mahira Kakkar as her friend Paulina, and Arnie Burton as Autolycus, the swindler. Another structural problem is that the play has no protagonist, no major characters that exist in both parts, and no one to lead the narrative. Other than Mr. Burton, all the other strong actors listed appeared almost entirely in the first act, leaving the second act in the hands of less strong cast members, including John Keating and Ed Malone as the shepherds. Because of this imbalance, the play often came across as flat and felt as if it was lagging (the three hours run time did not go by quickly).
At times it felt as if the tyrannical Mr. Yusef was doing a Trump-inspired King — or at least this was all the audience could murmur about at intermission. But all political allegory was abandoned for the second act, which instead relied on some very heavy-handed comedy, including Autolycus stealing an audience member’s purse and cellphone, some bizarre Irish accents, and an abundance of pregnant ensemble women.
“The Winter’s Tale” is not popular because it is difficult; it has challenges. Not only are there two distinct parts, but there is a death by a bear, a shipwreck, and a statue that magically comes to life. To be frank, not all of this works well, in this or any production of the piece. The play itself is not perfect, but Arbus takes the audience on a ride where anything can happen: the world of this play is magical and beautiful, and despite all the tragedy, everything concludes with a happy ending.
“The Winter’s Tale” at Theatre for a New Audience opens March 25th and runs through April 15th.