REVIEW: “The Winter’s Tale” at TFANA
Setting aside perennial debates about authorship, the official canon of William Shakespeare contains 39 plays—neatly categorized as tragedies, histories, and comedies. Near the end of the 19th century a sub-category of three so-called “problem plays” was identified, later popularly expanded by scholars to include six. These are plays that center around complex moral or social issues, include both comedic and tragic elements, and are ultimately ambiguous in tone.
“The Winter’s Tale”, which opened tonight in a solid and poignant new production directed by Arin Arbus (“The Skin of Our Teeth") for Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, offers a prime example of the “problem play” phenomenon. The first three acts, combined as one, follow the tragic results of a jealous tyrant’s unjustified rage; the final two, which compose the second half of the play, are a light, pastoral romantic comedy with bawdy humor and a bittersweet reconciliation. Rather than ignoring or attempting to mitigate the wild tonal and stylistic swings of the play, Ms. Arbus hangs a lantern on them, accentuating shifts in mood, whimsy, and magic with crisp design and a terrific troupe of actors at her disposal.
When Leontes, King of Sicilia, wrongly suspects his pregnant wife, Hermoine, is having an affair with the visiting Polixenes, King of Bohemia, she’s imprisoned and gives birth to a daughter; their young son, Mamillius, dies of grief; Polixenes flees; Hermoine is suspected dead; and after a visit from a Delphic oracle, Leontes mourns the errors of his ways. Meanwhile, at his order, Perdita, his infant daughter, is banished on the coast of Bohemia by Antigonus (who is promptly killed by a bear) and found by a shepherd. In act two, a character named “Time” announces 16 years have passed, Perdita is in love with Florizel, son of Polixenes—who disapproves—while Autolycus (the ever amusing Arnie Burton, “The 39 Steps”), a clownish scammer, schemes about and cons attendees of a sheep-shearing festival. Perdita and Florizel flee to Sicilia—Polixenes behind them—where identities are revealed, scores settled, and a statute of Hermoine comes to life, reuniting the family.
On a striking white stage with a giant white wall and arched opening (set by Riccardo Hernandez), the story plays out with simple, suggestive devices and unfussy blocking, the falling of snow and green and brown leaves denoting the passage of seasons—time is an important theme of the play—and the flux of joy and sorrow, birth and death, the circle of life.
“The Winter’s Tale” remains a strange and inharmonious play, but finds temporal resonance in its fascinating discourse on misogyny and disbelief in fact, and is ultimately about loss and restoration, universal features of the human condition. In its final seconds, Mamillius, the long dead son of Leontes and Hermoine, weaves about the assembled tableau of his long-lost family, now reunited, and runs off stage—his memory haunting their reconciliation. It is a poignant moment, constructed by Ms. Arbus to underscore the tragedy that underlies a facially happy ending, giving a dose of cohesion to this “problem play” and capping an excellent production.
Bottom Line: “The Winter’s Tale”, one of Shakespeare’s notorious “problem plays”, is given a solid new production by Arin Arbus with a terrific troupe of actors. While not a canonical favorite of mine, this play offers fascinating insights, is well-designed and performed, and is sure to delight any lover of Shakespeare.
“The Winter’s Tale”
Theatre for a New Audience
Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place
Brooklyn, NY 11217
Running Time: 2 hours, 50 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: March 25, 2018
Final Performance: April 15, 2018