Continuing its voyage of playful experimentation, Santa Cruz Shakespeare has launched its final repertory offering for 2019, The Winter’s Tale. One of the playwright’s final works, The Winter’s Tale fascinates in its multi-dimensionality.
Opening as a penetrating study of tragic jealousy, the play turns on its axis halfway through and becomes a robust pastoral comedy. And the fairy-tale ending is one of the rarest of closures in all of Shakespeare.
In the hands of director Raelle Myrick-Hodges and costume designer Ulises Alcal, Winter’s Tale pushes postmodernism to the breaking point. Time periods, vocal rhythms and fashions slip in and out of clarity—costumes begin in a Hollywoodish Rita Hayworth heyday, then bounce into ’60s dance parties and scatter toward hip-hop. With the collaged visuals come diverse accents—only some of which skillfully serve the plot.
The play’s driving theme echoes Othello. King Leontes of Sicily (Ian Merrill Peakes) and his old childhood friend King Polixenes of Bohemia (Lindsay Smiling) have been enjoying a long overdue visit together in Leontes’ court. As the play opens, Polixenes is bidding his friend farewell, having stayed nine months away from his own court in Bohemia. Leontes begs him to stay longer, to no avail. But when Leontes’ wife Hermione (Karen Peakes) asks, Polixenes relents. And herein lies the rub. Leontes suddenly finds himself consumed with jealousy and suspects that his pregnant wife Hermione might just be carrying the child of Polixenes, “he that wears her like a medal hanging about his neck.” Jealousy, spewed forth in Peakes’ spellbinding asides to the audience, turns to obsession, and soon Hermione is banished, Polixenes flees for his life, and Hermione’s newborn baby daughter is abandoned to the fates.
In a dramatic time shift used nowhere else in Shakespeare, 16 years has gone by when the second half of the play begins. (Mega-kudos to Patty Gallagher, whose panache gives clarity throughout.) We’re now in the company of shepherds in Bohemia, where a 16-year-old beauty is about to be engaged to the king’s son. You can see where this is going. In Bohemia, things are as jolly as Sicily has been tragic. And played in repertory, the cast has some real fun with their double roles, moving from the noble court to the countryside with relish.
The jarring eruption of a DJ dance party, however, does little to advance any understanding of the comedic plot twist, no matter how much light entertainment there is in the original text. Reviving audience focus with tall tales and song is the insanely talented Allen Gilmore as the trickster pickpocket Autolycas. His rollicking scenes crafted the dissonant shadings Shakespeare suggests. Gilmore’s Mr. Bennett also created the calm center of Pride and Prejudice, and it was a pleasure to watch him let loose and captivate the entire opening night house of Winter’s Tale. His punning repartee with the Shepherd (Tommy A. Gomez) and his son Clown (a winning Adrian Zamora) helped move the play toward its resolution.
Kudos to scenic designer Dipu Gupta, whose large circular opening on the back wall allowed glimpses of an enormous, scenic moon, whose movements and color changes helped to tell us the passing of day to night, and winter to summer. The Winter’s Tale is given added charm by the presence of a trio of actors all named Peakes, who are in fact husband, wife and son, Owen—playing husband Leontes, wife Hermione, and their son Mamillius. Ian Merrill Peakes, who steals this season’s Pride and Prejudice, is stylish, resourceful and fierce as Leontes’ inferno of paranoid jealousy. Directorial re-tuning might help infuse the ending with the rich, ironic power the play’s text demands. Contemporary costuming may update the look of a classic play, but it can’t help us understand the text, or heart of the play if the actors don’t believe (or comprehend) what they’re saying.
Still, The Winter’s Tale brims with eloquence, high tragedy and easy comedy—which is a lot for any night’s entertainment under moonlight. You owe it to yourself to take in this rare chance to see one of the Bard’s most unusual and controversial works.