by Kimberly Harper
Confession time: I was a little apprehensive about seeing “A Winter’s Tale” at the Sandra Feinstein Gamm Theatre this weekend. Not because I don’t think the Gamm does good work. In fact, as much as I try to avoid the dreaded “must see!” in my reviews, I don’t think there’s a show this year I haven’t actively encouraged my friends to attend. The Gamm has enjoyed an exceptional season.
No, it’s because it’s Shakespeare, and Shakespeare can be scary – and I say this as someone who really enjoys reading and performing it. It’s just daunting, and, in the wrong hands, it can be tedious and confusing. You know you’re supposed to like it, but, kind of like opera, it can be intimidating.
However, unlike most opera, Shakespeare didn’t write for an exclusive audience. At the time, you didn’t need a dictionary or a bunch of schooling to understand and enjoy his plays. It was for everyone, and it should be that way today. There was music. Dirty jokes. Fantastic plays on words. And, if you get a director who really understands and likes Shakespeare, it doesn’t matter that the language is archaic. The story lines transcend the centuries – and Fred Sullivan Jr. at the helm of “Winter’s Tale” wrings out every bit of comedy and humanity the script has to offer.
I wound up talking to another reviewer before the first act who told me that I was in for a treat. “If there’s any comedy at all to be found, Fred’s going to find it,” he said. “Even in a tragedy.” How right he was. Sullivan actually has a smaller role in Act 2, the thief Autolycus, and it’s absolutely perfect. I don’t think I’ve laughed that hard at anything I’ve seen on stage in awhile. But I digress.
Without giving away too much of the plot, A Winter’s Tale is the story of a king’s undoing at his own hand. Leontes, king of Sicily, is paranoid that his wife, Hermione, has cheated on him with his best friend, the King of Bohemia. Worse, he’s decided the paternity of her unborn child is in question. No amount of reasoning from his most trusted friends and advisors will convince him otherwise, and the more people try, the more wild he grows in his quest for his truth. Even the Oracle proclaiming Queen Hermione’s innocence cant’ sway him, and when Leontes defies even that ruling, that’s when things get really interesting. There’s death, destruction, murder plots, a baby found in the wilderness of Bohemia and a bear – and that’s just Act 1. Act 2 is all about mending hearts and forgiveness, with some romance thrown in, concluded with a literal magical plot twist.
But even a story that great is pretty meaningless if you don’t bring the audience along for the ride, and again, that’s a concern with Shakespeare. If you’ve got a bunch of actors who are just up there reciting their lines, you’re sunk.
If you’re in the audience at Gamm, you’re not going to be lost, you’re going to be captivated. Every actor on that stage infuses every line with enough physicality, expression and emotion that you understand, even if the language is antiquated.
The cast list for the show is basically a “Who’s Who” of the Gamm so I certainly wasn’t expecting lackluster performances, but I was unprepared for just how well everyone, from king to bit role, would embrace the material. Some of you who have seen other Shakespeare from the company will probably be much less surprised, but this was my first exposure. Tony Estrella as Leontes is wonderfully manic. The king starts out happy, playing with his son, flirting with his wife, teasing his friend. Then, like a switch being flipped, he is overcome with jealousy and insecurity. When he breaks the fourth wall to explain himself to the audience- a conceit Shakespeare was especially fond of in this work, designed to keep everyone in the loop – Estrella’s ability shines. But in the interest of full disclosure, Estrella was one of my theater professors at URI and is almost directly responsible for making me love Shakespeare as much as I do, so that wasn’t really a surprise to me. This is a person who knows what he’s doing, to say the least.
Karen Carpenter as Hermione plays the queen as something of a flirt, but you never question her innocence. Her shock and distress at Leonte’s accusations is palpable – you know her fate is sealed as soon as the king unleashes his fury on her, but you still hope for a better outcome. This is Shakespeare, though. He makes George R. R. Martin look positively merciful. The entire thing comes as a shock to the rest of the court – especially the noblewoman Paulina, played by Jeanine Kane. Prior to this I had seen Kane knock it out of the park as the quite-literally-bananas Bananas Shaughnessy in “House of Blue Leaves.” Paulina is the exact opposite kind of character and Kane harnesses a breathtaking strength and power for the role.
In Act 2 Nora Eschenheimer plays Perdita, the orphaned baby who has grown into a teenager. She is beautiful, bright and captivating, but the role demands far more versatility than that and Eschenheimer is just as engaging in her fury as she is in her happier moments.
The set for “Winter’s Tale” is pretty sparse, just some narrow columns with an area behind them for travel, and a large playing space in front. When it’s the palace, there’s a throne. The court, a simple stand. Bohemia, some flower garlands. Not much, but it doesn’t need much. You can set Shakespeare anywhere but when it’s done well you don’t need a bunch of trappings. The costumes are well designed, appropriate for the various settings but not so much that they detract from the actors.
Shakespeare isn’t meant to be read in a classroom. It needs to be experienced, seen, heard. There’s meant to be music, and life behind the text, and the actors at Gamm deliver, hands down. This is Shakespeare as it should be seen.
“The Winter’s Tale” runs through May 29 at the Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange St., Pawtucket. Tickets range between $41 and $49 and may be obtained by calling (401) 723-4266, or visiting gammtheatre.org.