The Winter's Tale is one of those enigmatic works that is placed at the top or bottom of the canon, depending on the fashions of the time. In our day, those who profess John Gage as their favorite composer and Finnegan's Wake as their favorite novel invariably champion The Winter's Tale as the greatest masterpiece among Shakespeare's plays.
On the other hand, those of a conservative turn of mind have described it as a late work by a worn-out writer -- longing already, perhaps, for the retirement he would soon take.
It's a weird two hours' traffic on the stage, however you slice it. The king of Sicily falls into a sudden ferocious fit of jealousy. He believes his loving, virtuous wife is betraying him with his life-long friend, the king of Bohemia. He casts her into prison, where she gives birth to a daughter. Believing the king of Bohemia is its father, he sentences the child to death by exposure. Meanwhile, he sends for the Oracle of Apollo for justification of his cruelty (when is this all happening, anyway?). The oracle says the queen is innocent. The king rejects the oracle. Thereupon, his young son dies and so does his wronged queen. Crushed by grief, he repents.
Time, an allegorical figure, enters and takes us to Bohemia 20 years later. The abandoned daughter has been raised by shepherds who found her. The son of the king of Bohemia has fallen in love with her. The king of Bohemia threatens disinheritance. The young lovers flee to Sicily, pursued by the king of Bohemia. There is a reconciliation; all is forgiven. And, mirabile dictu, the queen, who was turned into a statue through benevolent witchcraft, suddenly comes back to life. A happy ending! (For all, except the heir to the Sicilian throne, who died pining for his mother, and the loyal old retainer who was eaten by a bear while abandoning the child.)
This bizarre narrative presents me with an imaginative world I can't comfortably enter. It isn't a question of fantasy (I find The Tempest a total delight). It's more like the problem I experience as I watch Elizabethan characters put on disguises and fool their closest of kin. I bump up against some 20th century wall in my imagination. I'm not happy with the wall. I would like to find a way past it.
So I was pleased to see the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane do The Winter's Tale. The production, directed by Aimeé Michel (with Aimeé Hayes assisting) took Shakespeare at his word and made the entire production a story told by an adult to a child; a fairy tale from the jump. This simple framing device certainly helped ease one into the magical romance that followed.
The production had a clear, forthright quality. It held one's interest and entertained -- though a more haunted, supernatural aura would have not have been amiss.
Radical doubling is the style this year at the Shakespeare Festival. In The Winter's Tale, nearly all the cast had double duties. Andrea Frankle's wronged queen was poignant and noble. Jessica Podewell gave us a graceful young princess, and Billy Slaughter a sensitive, spirited prince. Other notable performances were turned in by Shelley Poncy, Danny Bowen, Gavin Mahlie, Robert Montgomery, Tony Molina, Gary Rucker, Donald Lewis and Brendan Bowen.
Meanwhile, over in the brand new Blue Moon (a comfortable, attractive little theater built in East Jefferson High School through the tireless perseverance of Rene Piazza and a cohort of loyal followers) The Swan of Avon has turned into the Churkindoose -- that imaginary childhood creature who was part chicken, part turkey and part goose.
Piazza combined a group of high school and university students with some of their elders to unleash his own zany deconstruction of Shakespeare with Romeo and Juliet/West Side Story.
"The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste ... nor his heart to report, what this play was," to paraphrase The Bard from another context. For 1950s-era Manhattan collided with Renaissance Verona in a free-form melee that was always outrageous, and sometimes hilarious.
Particularly noteworthy in the cast were writer-director Piazza, Michael Sullivan, Maggie Brooke, Daryl Cade, Shae Porsche, Scott D'Aunoy, Bryon Reiger, Eddie Simon, Kathryn DiStefano and Emily Harrison.
Piazza informs me a linguistic theorist from the philosophy department of the Sorbonne will lecture on the epistemological implications of this postmodern epic. Watch the listings. I'm sure all serious theater goers will want to attend.