The Winter’s Tale Delights with Modern Spin on Shakespeare

Sarah Westbrook

From Feb. 21–24, Little Theater played host to Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, directed by College senior Carter Sligh. The show was an ambitious undertaking that went off without a hitch and was a testament to the tremendous hard work put in by the cast and crew.

From the first moment of the production on, the audience was incorporated into the action of the play, staged as a theater-in-the-round with seating on all four sides. The cast wandered around in character as the audience members took their seats. They approached viewers, asking them to dance or to hold their drinks.

Sligh elected to set the drama in the 1950s and ’60s, in part because of the shifting moral standards those decades represent. The choice was successful, perhaps because the play itself is set in two vastly different places, restrained Sicilia and uninhibited Bohemia, and that the gap between Acts I and II spans 15 years, echoing the changes in American society in the mid-20th century. To update the play, a record sale replaced the sale of ballads in Act II.

Still, the costuming was appropriately vintage, and selections of period music played between scenes. The scenery itself was sparse — just a few red velvet ottomans and a wooden chair. The starkness of the staging made room for the brilliance of the actors, who truly inhabited their roles and energetically occupied the stage.

“Merry or sad shall it be?” Mamillius asks his mother when she offers to tell him a story early in the play. This question is also subliminally posed to the audience, for The Winter’s Tale is a difficult work to classify: Its first act is terribly tragic, while its second is rife with reunions and happy endings.

College senior Phil Wong as King Leontes, was extraordinarily paranoid and psychologically distressed. He possessed a pure derangement, spitting intensity IN his speech, as he inexplicably turns on his wife Hermione (played by College sophomore Molly Bennett), accusing her of being unfaithful to him with his best friend Polixenes (played by College junior Brian Gale) and imprisoning her, so she is forced to give birth to her daughter in jail. His fury was a sight to behold; each time he re-entered the stage in Act I his appearance became more disheveled as he clutched at his face, rolled his eyes back into his head and pulled at his uncombed hair. Hermoine was the ultimate blameless victim, sincere and even childlike in certain moments.

Sixteen years pass, and when Act II opens, the audience is invited into a different world — one where fools and music are as abundant as goodwill and romance. Hermione’s daughter Perdita (played by College sophomore Annie Winneg) was raised as a lowly shepherd’s daughter. She falls in love with Polixenes’ son Florizel (played by College first-year Ian Emerson). After their forbidden romance is discovered, they flee to Sicilia. Once there, Perdita discovers her true identity, and is reunited with Leontes. Paulina (played by College junior Sarah Rosengarten), deeming it the right time, unveils a statue of the dead queen. Upon her command, the statue comes to life and all ends well.

Gale was dignified and honorable as Polixenes, with the right mix of rational fear of Leontes and fatherly protectiveness of his son. The director also took the opportunity to put Camillo (played by College sophomore Julia Melfi) into a sheep costume when she and Polixenes attend the sheep-shearing festival in disguise. This was among the many farcical aspects of Act II that lifted the audience up out of the despair of Act I and allowed viewers to be amused by the simplicity that reigned in Bohemia.

An important thread running through the play was the dominance of men over women. Aside from the demented Leontes, even the more gentle and fatherly characters come to show their dark sides. When Polixenes discovers that his son Florizel is smitten with a country girl — though she is actually a princess and daughter of Leontes — he goes ballistic. Polixenes threatens to disfigure her and calls accuses her of “witchcraft” and “enchantment.” Minutes later, Perdita’s stepfather turns on her as well, blaming her for their ruination. In this way, Perdita’s and her mother’s stories echo one another a decade and a half apart. They are victims of the selfish, illogical men for whom they sacrifice too much.

One of the only women in the play with any kind of power is Paulina. Rosengarten imbued the role with great elegance, even while making constant efforts to lobby on behalf of Hermoine and taking great risks to convince the king of his error.

The play lasted three hours, which should have been exhausting, but the actors showed no signs of wearing down even as The Winter’s Tale concluded. It was a spectacular rendition of a play that asks big questions about jealousy and paranoia, the costs of virtue and freedom, trust and friendship, and the moments when dreams can overtake and influence reality.