By Julie Peterson
Mary Riley and Richard Baird in The Winter's Tale. Photo by Laura Durant, graphic enhancements by Southwest Shakespeare Co.
Watching a play by William Shakespeare can be like watching a biopic (or, for that matter, like trying to get on an O.J. Simpson jury) -- you already know what happened, and you can't unknow it. Even if you attempt my strategy, which was to choose a play I'd never read or seen, most companies helpfully spoil you with a synopsis in the playbill.
Southwest Shakespeare Company goes the extra mile with a pre-show mini-lecture from artistic director Jared Sakren, and when I emerged from the ladies' room to find that taking place, I gave in and joined the group on Mesa Arts Center's sunny patio. Hey, if the producers want us to recognize the characters and follow the basic plot of The Winter's Tale going in, maybe they know best. After all, we know how World War II ended, too, but it still made for some great movies.
It's a rare production of the Bard that isn't long and wordy, so no one loses points for that, in my book. What's extremely cool about this show is that it's running in the "red box" -- MAC's 99-seat Anita Cox Farnsworth Studio Theater -- and it's staged on a deep, three-sided thrust platform.
No one's more than a few rows from the action, and director Richard Baird (who also plays King Leontes) shows the audience detailed, ever-changing perspectives of some exasperatingly multifaceted characters, complete with sweat, spit, lust, rage, and shame. I'm now wondering whether every production of Shakespeare shouldn't be a maximum of 15 feet away from me.
Nearly everything rests on the acting in this situation, and especially in the arduous, tear-jerking first half of The Winter's Tale, the players are up to the challenge posed by the intimate staging. Given that Will's entire canon features dense, centuries-old language, much of it poetic, and byzantine sociopolitical structures that can be hard to fathom, it's reasonable to ask why we even pay attention to the scripts outside of literary study. Baird's cast illustrates the best answer, as far as I'm concerned: These characters are real, relatable people. Many successful writers of this century can't create people this real.
It's both moving and illuminating to watch such characters move from desire to fear, through hardship and torture, to enlightenment and redemption. When we can see each shade of emotion pass over their faces, it isn't always important exactly what they're saying (or even how cheesy their disguises are -- an enduring staple of many Shakespeare plots).
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The show's a good introduction (or reintroduction) to Shakespeare for the easily intimidated, and the U-shaped seating area and necessary light spill revealed a mostly rapt audience -- but it's not theatergoing for the lightweight. We heard people reassuring one another at intermission that the second half is a lot shorter and lighter-spirited. It is, but it adds one annoyance in the character Perdita, played by Amanda Schaar.
Perdita's built up as an epic diamond in the rough -- secret royalty gracing her nasty, sheep-filled abode with goddesslike beauty and charm. She's the gal for whom you'd give up the throne of Bohemia, but God bless her, she's woefully underwritten, like many of Shakespeare's ingenues. It's hard to play these people. It's hard to costume, light, direct, or play opposite them, and it's just not flying here on any level as far as I'm concerned. At least the man who loves her is pretty much a cipher, too (again, not entirely the actor's fault), so she's not alone.
The Winter's Tale runs through December 20 at Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street. Call 480-644-6500 for tickets (prices vary), or order here.