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Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024
The Observer

Not-so-Royal Shakespeare Co. gives incredible performance

On Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the Not-So-Royal (NSR) Shakespeare Co. performed an only slightly abridged “The Winter’s Tale” (circa 1609-1611), which, with its almost symmetrical split into two halves of dark tragedy and comic romance, illustrates — perhaps more clearly than any other Shakespearean play — the genre of tragicomedy.

The tragedy of King Leontes seems, at first glance, irreversible and terrifying, like that of Shakespeare’s greatest tragic protagonists. He suffers from irrational jealousy, much like Othello, and tries to destroy the person on whom all his happiness depends. Like Othello, his jealousy stems from a characteristic perversion of the masculine and fear of inadequacy, founded on meager fantasies. Unlike Othello, however, Leontes does not need a diabolic tempter such as Iago to poison his mind against Queen Hermione. Leontes is annihilated by his own fantasies. 

Leontes confronts Hermione. The Observer | Emily Hannon

It is horribly frustrating for the audience to perceive such unjust conclusions come to fruition, and NSR nicely portrays the suddenness of Leontes’s speculations with a red light flashing and haloing around him as he broods with his thoughts. Dominic Keene, who plays Leontes, does a remarkable job of demonstrating his distraught and emphatic madness.

Although Hermione is graciously fond of Leontes’s dear friend Polixenes, urging him to stay longer in Sicily, she does so with just the cordiality necessary for the occasion and encouraged by her husband. In any case, Shakespeare removes from Leontes the motive and occasion of a plausible distrust of his wife. All observers in the court of Sicily are incredulous and shocked by the King's accusations. Even so, Leontes is not an unsympathetic character. Like Othello, Leontes cherishes his wife and realizes with horrifying intensity the fearful cost they both must pay for his suspicions. They sacrifice not only his marriage but his enduring friendship with Polixenes, his sense of pride in his children and his delight in the warm consideration of his subjects. Whatever the psychological cause of this obsession, it manifests itself as a revulsion against his wife’s entire behavior. In contrast, Hermione, played by Nandini Sadagopan, stands proud with honor, glistening with the tears only an innocent sufferer could illume. 

Indeed, all of Shakespeare's later plays feature journeys of separation, apparent deaths and tearful reconciliations. “The Winter’s Tale” uses a more formal structure to evoke the antithesis of tragedy and romance. It is sharply divided into contrasting halves by an interval of 16 years. The first tragic part takes place almost entirely in Sicily, while the action of the second half is mostly limited to Bohemia. In the court of Sicily, we see tyrannical jealousy producing a perpetually stormy winter spiritual climate; in Bohemia, we witness a pastoral landscape and the shearing of sheep evoking the sweetness of the year.

Leontes plays with his son. The Observer | Emily Hannon

The two halves of the play are intensified by parallels: both begin with Camillo (Sammy Kacius) on stage and proceed to scenes of confrontation and jealousy in which, ironically, the innocent cause of jealousy in the first half, Polixenes (Ryan Mantey), becomes the jealous tyrant of the second half. The parallelism reminds us of the cyclical nature of time and the hope it brings for renewal as we move from tragedy to romantic comedy.

The view of human depravity is pessimistic as if infected by the melancholy spirit of great tragedies. And because humanity is so bent on destroying itself, restoration is both more urgently needed and more miraculous than in the festive world of earlier comedies. Renewal is mythically associated with the seasonal cycle from winter to summer.

The cosmic order is never really challenged, however, even when human suffering is very tangible and injustice to women especially apparent. Leontes’s fantasies of the universal disorder are chimerical. His wife is indeed chaste, Polixenes true and the King’s courtiers loyal. Despite philosophical questions Camillo must endure in his conflict to either obey the king or murder a friend, NSR once more makes a brilliant staging decision, having Polinexes playfully scare Camillo with a teddy bear as their conversation exudes dramatic irony. Eventually, Camillo refuses to carry out Leontes’s order to assassinate Polixenes, not only because he knows the murder is wrong, but also because history offers not even one example of a man who attacked anointed kings with success.

The cosmos of this play is such that crimes are invariably and quickly punished. The Delphic oracle defends Hermione and gives Leontes a stern warning. When Leontes persists in his madness, the death of his son Mamillius follows as an immediate consequence. As Leontes simultaneously realizes his wife is dead, he paradoxically congratulates the long remorse he must submit to, as this confirms a pattern in the universe of just causes and effects. Although, as a tragic protagonist, he discovered the truth about Hermione too late and therefore had to pay for his mistake, Leontes has at least regained faith in Hermione’s transcendent goodness. His nightmare over, he accepts and embraces his wife’s suffering and death as necessary compensation.

Paulina scolds Leontes. The Observer | Emily Hannon

The transition to the novel is therefore anticipated to some extent by the first half of the play, even if the tone of the last two acts is noticeably different. The old Shepherd signals a very important change when he tells his son about a cataclysmic storm, and the ravenous bear is pitted against a child’s miraculous discovery. When Antigonus is ordered to consign Hermione’s newborn baby girl to the wilderness, NSR adds a perfect image of his helpless estate by having Leontes threaten him with a sword.

Antigonus reflects on his quandary. The Observer | Emily Hannon

Time comes to the stage to remind us of the playwright’s conscious artifice. He can carry us 16 years as if we had only dreamed in the interim. Shakespeare exhibits the improbability of his story by giving Bohemia a sea coast and by bringing on stage a live bear or an actor dressed as a bear. NSR — thankfully — opts for the actor dressed as a bear, who chases Antigonus amid hilarious roars off the stage. The narrative uses many devices typical of the romantic novel: a baby abandoned and reared in the wilderness, a princess brought up by shepherds, a prince disguised as a young peasant, a voyage across the sea and a scene of reconnaissance. Love is threatened, not by the internal physical obstacle of jealousy, but by the external obstacles of parental opposition and an apparent social class disparity between lovers. A twinge of forbidden love and Camillo’s scheming dimension of his character haunts the atmosphere of the second half, but is obstructed by lovely scenes; at one point, for instance, NSR has Perdita distributing beautiful flowers all around the audience. Interconnectedly, Prince Florizel (Mike Hanisch) and Perdita (Christina Randazzo) do well in their ecstatic passion for one another.

Comedy easily finds the solutions to such difficulties, through the disentangling of illusion. This comic world also appropriately includes rustic shepherds, demure shepherdesses and Autolycus, the roguish traveling salesman, whose machinations contribute in an unforeseen way to the good outcome of the love story. Autolycus is, in many ways, the genius who presides over the second half of the play, a character as dominant as Leontes in the first half and one whose pleasurable function is to do good against his will. Sam Rush does a tremendous job of playing this humorous figure. In addition, Andrew Arcidiacono and Tony Perez provide fantastic comedic interpretations of the Clown and the Shepherd. In this paradox of trickery converted surprisingly into a benign ending, we see how the providence of Shakespeare’s tragicomic world uses the most implausible and extravagant events to achieve its own inscrutable design.

Autolycus tricks the Shepherd and Clown. The Observer | Emily Hannon

The conventional romantic ending is filled, however, with sadness and mystery that take the play far beyond what is usual in comedy. Mamillius and Antigonus are really dead, and this irredeemable fact is not forgotten in the play’s final happy moments. Hermione, though avenged by the gods, suffered public shame, the death of a child, separation from her other child and prolonged isolation from her husband; she had to bear the consequences of Leontas’s frailty and thus redeem her husband through his suffering. Her husband, putting her aside, must discover and learn to esteem the woman he once chose and who is now aged; he must reconfirm his marriage to her, even as he learns to accept his daughter’s marriage to a younger man.

All of these crucial twists hinge on Shakespeare’s most remarkable detachment from his source, Robert Greene’s “Pandosto”: Hermione is brought back to life. All observers regard this event, and Perdita’s rediscovery, as grossly implausible. The very title of the play, “The Winter’s Tale,” reinforces this sense of innocent improbability. Why does Shakespeare emphasize this enigmatic paradox of unbelievable reality, and why does he deliberately mislead his audience into believing that Hermione is, in fact, dead, using a kind of theatrical trick not found in any other Shakespeare play? The answer may well be that, in Paulina’s (Eliza Chaney) words: we need to reawaken our faith, accepting a narrative of death and return to life that cannot ultimately be understood by reason.

Rationally, we are told that Hermione was kept in hiding for 16 years, in order to satisfy the oracle’s condition, that Leontes must live without an heir (and therefore without a wife) until Perdita is found. We are drawn to an emblematic interpretation, keeping in mind that this is more of an evocative allusion than a complete truth. Throughout the play, Hermione was repeatedly associated with “Grace” and with the goddess Proserpine, whose return from the underworld after 13 months signaled the beginning of spring. Perdita, also associated with Proserpine, is received by her father as spring is received by the land. The emphasis on the father-daughter bond so characteristic of Shakespeare’s later plays explores familial relationships.

Paulina has a similarly emblematic role, that of Conscience, patiently guiding the King to a divinely appointed reconciliation. Paulina speaks of herself as an artistic figure, performing wonders of illusion despite rejecting assistance from evil powers. NSR has the characters playfully mime the scene as a servant tells of the reencounter between the families and the equal, leveling force of love eliminating class boundaries. These iconic allusions do not rob the story of its human drama but lend transcendent significance to this bittersweet story of sinful error, affliction and unexpected redemption. All of this to say, NSR did an absolutely fantastic job with yet another Shakespeare rendition.

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