For an exercise in frustration, try explaining the plot of The Winter's Tale to someone. It can't be done. You keep trying, but you can't get away from the feeling you're not quite getting it right.
But that means that The Winter's Tale also leaves plenty of room for interpretation. It's always an enticement to see how a director will explain the play's ambiguity. The Arizona Shakespeare Festival's choice of the play as its season finale is a challenging one, and moves the company a step beyond its penchant for cloying Elizabethan charm.
The Winter's Tale is a tragedy that gets turned around by the end, and has a light romance stuck in the middle. The first half of the play tells the story of the tragedy: Leontes, the King of Sicily, accuses his innocent wife, Hermione, of infidelity. His young son dies, he denies paternity of Hermione's newborn and orders the child banished, then tries his wife for treason and orders her executed.
Director Randy Messersmith staged these episodes on a large circle, a suitable enough metaphor for the play's eventual return to forgiveness and harmony, but not particularly inspired as a set. Although the play still takes place in Sicily and Bohemia as Shakespeare wrote, Messersmith's production lives in an unspecified netherworld that functions in heavy symbolism. Actors with nonspeaking parts hum, move a flame about, form strange choreographed tableaux, and sometimes get in the way of those with written roles. The costumes are handsome, flowing robes last seen in an unidentified science-fiction galaxy.
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Actually, this approach to Shakespeare is a lot of fun, but it takes a production designer with an unshakable concept and total control of the visuals to carry it off without seeming pretentious. This time around, the attempt made it only halfway.
Once the action moves to Bohemia, where the banished baby Perdita is growing up, however, the play's direction is more coherent. The pastel lighting and costumes suggest springtime happiness and light without belaboring the fact, and the actors have specific bits of nonsymbolic business to keep them busy. The Bohemia scenes contain some of Shakespeare's most beautiful light verse on the seasons, which the actors delivered with a lot more enthusiasm than anything in earlier scenes involving Leontes. By the time 16 years have passed and we return to Leontes, the production had lost a lot of its pacing. The Winter's Tale was a long evening. Stanton Davis as Leontes was able to bellow, accuse and order about, but not to amplify the part into the mysterious human being Shakespeare seemed to intend. Is Leontes jealous? A psychopath? A dramatic exaggeration of a normal man who regrets past mistakes?
The difficulty with the resolution of The Winter's Tale is that Leontes scarcely deserves to get his wife back. Still, when he embraces the statue of her, she returns to life and all ends happily.
Critics have suggested that the play gives a violent, paternalistic view of society--Leontes rules by terror and awakens his wife as a Sleeping Beauty. Others see Shakespeare in a feminist light, since Hermione doesn't go quietly at her trial but reminds Leontes of every brutal act he's ever committed. Since there's not much in the text of the play to make a real case for either point of view, only strong, focused acting can tip the scales in a particular direction. As with the tentative staging, director Messersmith didn't go far enough in making his intentions known.