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‘The Winter’s Tale’ meets chilly reception

Shakespeare on the Green’s performance was hobbled by a small set and inexperienced actors

Amorphous shadows waltz upon the gossamer backdrop, billowing ever so slightly in the secluded courtyard. The occasional autumnal leaf flutters down to rest upon the stage, where the doomed Antigonus stands alone. One shadow grows larger, then larger, then — suddenly — could it be? A bear erupts through the cloth, dispatching with one stroke both the set and Antigonus’ life.

At once tragic, folksy and absurd, Shakespeare on the Green’s production of “The Winter’s Tale,” which opened Thursday night, explores man’s constant struggle between faith, wonder and disbelief. The five acts of this quintessential tragicomedy first recount the familial undoing of King Leontes of Sicily before revealing his atonement. Though a few cast members shine, much of the performance underwhelms — staging choices make the play hard to follow, and several performances are unconvincing.

The play starts by introducing King Leontes of Sicily, played by Marcus Sudac ’17, a Herald contributing writer, who is convinced beyond all doubt that his pregnant wife, Hermione, played by Laura Neill GS, carries the child of his best friend. Leontes’ misguided conviction evolves into jealous tyranny as the monarch destroys his marriage, family and a lifelong friendship. Yet within the heartbreak, there is bawdy humor, magic and Shakespeare’s infamous stage direction — “Exit, pursued by bear.”

Sudac plays Leontes’ pyrrhic paranoia to perfection. With each precise twitch of his fingers or trembling of his hands, another facet of the monarch’s brooding nihilism bubbles up to the surface. Spite drips from his voice like honey as he accuses his wife of adultery.

In this scene, Hermione stands encircled by her ladies and her husband’s men, but she has never felt more alone, and the nearby crickets act as both an unintentional audience and a soundtrack to her solitude. But Neill’s performance falls flat, and she lacks emotion as she clasps her hands over her now-flat stomach, a reminder of the child her husband abandoned to the elements.

Performed in nature  ­— or just about as close as you can come to it on campus, in the Modern Culture and Media courtyard — the adaptation explores and uses the natural elements of the stage. A child hears a bedtime story upon the ivy-covered steps of the stage. During a musical interlude, a clown shakes a tree, sending a shower of leaf confetti upon the dancers below.

But the courtyard is small, angular and constrictive, a location decision director Austen Hyde ’14 said he made consciously to manipulate this idea of scope.

And indeed, as the play continues, parts of the set are stripped away by various characters, bear included, to reflect the total loss the characters feel after the child’s abandonment. But in its minimalism, the set feels haphazard. It is often unsettled by both the on-stage and off-stage movements by the actors, many of whom tripped over one particular cord, and backstage props became visible as the show progressed.

In part, Hyde deconstructs the traditional boundaries separating actor and audience, stage and theater and on-stage and off-stage worlds. A drunk, whose cup overflows with wine, interrupts the usual introductory speech given in Brown productions. In several nautical scenes that take place in a BB — Before Bear — time scale, entire scenes operate behind the gauzy scrim, the darkened silhouettes of actors slipping in and out of focus as they struggle to illuminate Hermione’s innocence. But this move fails, as the veil of cloth muffles the dialogue and makes character distinction nearly impossible.

The charm of the play arrives in the final comedic acts, when sheep, Irish accents and clowns in mismatched plaid collide in a campy Bohemia. In one moment, a clown leaves the stage to engage in pleasures of the flesh with two women — one of whom is a garishly cross-dressed man in a full-length, emboidered denim dress and kitten heels — with the classic line, “Wenches, I’ll buy for you both.” The wenches turn to leave, their behinds clasped firmly in the fingers of the clown.

Among the ensemble, the jovial Dana Schwartz ’15 stands out with both her swagger and quivering brow as Old Shepherd and First Lady, respectively.

Yet for all its heart, the adaptation runs about two hours — too long for comfort, particularly on a cold night. The mechanics of an outside show make transitions difficult and dialogue hard to hear. The supporting cast varies in acting strength and stage presence, with most of them delivering flat and staccato dialogue. But the moments of magic do, to some extent, counteract the foibles of the show, the messages of which remain universal and affecting. Nestled in the Providence fauna with this little taste of the absurd, viewers may glimpse Bohemia, but they will not be transported.

“The Winter’s Tale” runs Oct. 17-19 at 8 p.m., and Oct. 19-20 at 2 p.m. in the MCM courtyard.


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