Christmas must have been something over at the Shakespeares’ place.
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison is billing its season-ending production of The Winter’s Tale as family friendly holiday fare, a “wintry…romance” complete with “bohemian pastoral gaiety…a magical rebirth and a moving reunion” that embody the spirit of the holidays.
Prithee, sayest thou again?
Anyone expecting Yule nostalgia along the lines of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales or It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play –the theater company’s holiday offerings from recent years–is in for a jolt.
In Shakespeare’s version of It’s a Wonderful Life, a standup guy meets a grisly, or rather, grizzly, end.
“Exit, pursued by a bear,” reads the stage direction, arguably more famous than The Winter’s Tale that contains it.
This work from late in Shakespeare’s career is impossible to label. It’s really two plays, suggesting either a split personality for the Bard, or the influence of some potent Elizabethan snuff.
It’s like a Coen Brothers movie… with a Disney ending.
The prose is heavy. The plot goes something like this. We quote the British site Shakespeare.org:
The jealous King Leontes falsely accuses his wife Hermione of infidelity with his best friend, and she dies. Leontes exiles his newborn daughter Perdita, who is raised by shepherds for sixteen years and falls in love with the son of Leontes’ friend. When Perdita returns home,
Let’s stop there. This climax must be seen to be disbelieved.
As with prior productions, the Shakespeare Theatre of NJ fields a strong cast for The Winter’s Tale.
Jon Barker, shifting gears from last season’s Shakespeare in Love, whips up enough berserk outrage as Leontes, King of Sicilia, to scare off anyone from (un)holy matrimony.
He wrongly accuses George Bailey himself– John Keabler, star of last year’s Wonderful Life, now portraying Polixenes, King of Bohemia. He seems a reasonable chap, much like Jimmy Stewart in Bedford Falls…until he spies his noble son (Ryan Woods) falling for the pixieish peasant Perdita (Courtney McGowan). Try saying that three times fast.
Quickly unhinged, Polixenes proves himself as tyrannical as his boyhood pal Leontes.
William Sturdivant (Tartuffe) stirs up mischief as the roguish Autolycus. Comic relief — and a double dose of morality–comes from an Old Shepherd and his clownish son, played by company veterans Ames Adamson (Blithe Spirit) and Seamus Mulcahy (Charley’s Aunt).
Their wits are modest, their hearts, generous. Moral: Commoners are nicer than kings.
If the finish suggests Disney, then Antigonus (Raphael Nash Thompson) is Shakespeare’s equivalent of Bambi’s Mother. (SPOILER ALERT!) Thompson gets to spend his holidays as a bear biscuit. We all know what happened to Bambi’s mom, R.I.P.
At the center of the storm are a pair of strong ladies.
Marion Adler (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) is fearless as Paulina, who risks all to advocate for the persecuted Sicilian Queen Hermione, played by Erin Partin, completing her 14th season with the company.
Partin’s Hermione evolves from flirtatious and fetching to a stoic victim, whose statuesque features figure prominently in the final act.
So make of The Winter’s Tale what you will. Just don’t call it a Holiday Classic.
With that, we bid you Merry Christmas, and make our exit. Those furry footsteps are getting closer.
The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare, directed by Bonnie J. Monte, runs through Dec. 30, 2018, at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University in Madison. Tickets: $49-$69. At 36 Madison Ave., 973-408-5600.