It’s hard not to get political when you attend one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. As I was watching A Noise Within’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” on opening weekend, I was reminded of both the distant past and the current day presidential crisis. Under the direction of Geoff Elliott, the play takes place in the elegant 1920s, and gives us plenty to consider about how the 2020s began. There are no true villains here and the play does have a qualified happy ending since an innocent dies.
“The Winter’s Tale” is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays. It begins with all the marks of a tragedy and in this production the first three acts are presented with darker colors after the glittering glamor of the initial party is dismissed. During the party, even though the women are in evening gowns, and some of the men in tuxes, the king is in a uniform and will remain as he heads toward tragedy. This is a man who has a sign of himself with the slogan: “Ever Vigilant; Ever Caring.” The main stage pieces (scenic design by Frederica Nascimento) are two dramatically angled dark grey walls with arched openings, recalling the works of Italian Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978). Historians will recall that Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) came to power as prime minister of Italy in 1922.
If the first three acts are the tragic and harsh “winter,” then the ending brings us to a joyful spring. The last two acts are light and airy, and this production makes it colorful with a background of emerald green satin covering the moving walls and ruby red flowers hanging down from above.
The catalyst for the tragedy is a jealous king. Leontos (Frederick Stuart), King of Siciliy, asks his friend Polixenes (Brian Ibsen), King of Bohemia, a long-time friend to extend his already nine-month stay. Polixenes wants to return home and to the business of being a king, so Leontes asks his heavily pregnant queen, Hermione (Trisha Miller), to entreat his friend to stay. After she convinces Polixenes to change his mind, Leontes suspects the queen and his friend are lovers and the child she will bear is not his, but his friend’s. Leontes asks the Sicilian nobleman Camillo (Jeremy Rabb) to assassinate Polixenes, but instead, Camillo warns the King of Bohemia and, with him, flees to Bohemia.
Hermione is then left to the mercy of her raging ,jealous husband who wonders if their young son, Mamillius (Jayce Evans) is his. Hermione gives birth to a girl which her friend Paulina (Deborah Strang) brings before Leontes. The king then bids Paulina’s husband Antigonus (Alan Blumenfeld) to take the child away. Leontes sends to the Delphi Oracle to get the truth, but puts his wife on public trial before the answer comes.
Your actions are my dreams; You had a bastard by Polixenes, and I but dream’d it. As you were past all shame, those of your fact ae so–so past all truth: Which to deny concerns more than avails; for as thy brat hath been cast out, like to itself, no father owning it, which is, indeed, more criminal in thee than it, so though shalt feel our justice, in whose easiest passage look for no less than death.
When Hermione asks that the Oracle’s answer be read, the Oracle’s statement proclaims the queen chaste and the king’s friends innocent, but also foretells that the king will have no heir until the lost child is found.
Hermione is chaste; Polixenes blameless; Camillo a true subject; Leontes a jealous tyrant; his innocent babe truly begotten; and the kind shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found.
When Leontes refuses to believe the Oracle’s declaration of innocence and dismisses it as “a mere falsehood,” his son suddenly dies. When Leontes and Hermione receive this report, Hermione then faints and is taken away. Paulina soon returns and reports to the repentant king that his wife is now also dead. Leontes begs forgiveness to Apollo for not believing his Delphi Oracle, and realizes that Camillo was right to flee and save his friend, but now he realizes it is too late to recall his remaining child.
Antigonus has already been ordered to dispose of the baby daughter of Leontes and Hermione, and has landed on a desert country near the sea with the child, but he is driven away by a bear. In this production, the conceit seems to be that the bear is some how connected to the son, Mamillius who once dressed as a bear and we see again, as a spirit standing in the background watching Antigonus. Dressed in a white wear onesie, Mamillius is both a punisher and a protector.
The baby is found by a shepherd (also played by Blumenfeld) and his son (Eric Flores). Time comes, in the form of Angela Gulner. Sixteen years pass and now the child has grown into Perdita (Gulner) who is a shepherdess, but, as the Elizabethans believed in the superiority of the aristocracy, she evidences her high birth in some ways. Perdita has attracted the affection of Polixenes’ son and heir, Florizel ((Alexander De Vasconcelos Matos). While Florizel joins a sheep shearing celebration in disguise and asks for Perdita’s hand, Polixenes with Camillo, also in disguise, observe them. An angered Polixenes forbids this love match, but Camillo intervenes and sends the lovers with a letter of introduction to the court of his former lord, Leontes. Leontes is now in deep mourning, praying for forgiveness for his actions against friends and his dead wife and son.
When he greets Florizel in his court, Leontes is happy. The court Polixenes left was one that preferred military uniforms, but now Leontes is dressed in an off-white three piece suit. Yet Florizel and his betrothed Perdita pretend to be emissaries of Polixenes, and that ruse is too soon dispelled when Leontes learns that Polixenes and Camillo have arrived. There will be a confrontation, but there will be a happy ending for everyone except Mamillius and Antigonus who do not come back from the dead.
As director Elliott navigates the troubled waters of this problem play well enough. Stuart transitions well from the angrily jealous man to the repentant king, humbled by his wrong-doings. Miller’s wife retains her sense of dignity even when her Hermione is reduced to wearing rags and then becomes a statue of nobility wronged. Rabb’s Camillo shines with honesty and goodwill and becomes the moral compass for two kings.
In the press notes, Elliott explained “This story shows what psychotic jealousy can do to a family and even a country. Leontes starts out as a paranoid and egotistical–he builds monuments to himself. But after he destroys everything he’s ever loved, he spends the rest of the play atoning for it, believing he has no hope left. His extraordinary arc concludes with a dramatic scene of forgiveness that’s both surprising and moving.”
The play has been “streamlined” to still provide the “core story of Leontes’ transformation to make it more accessible, without losing any of the fairytale enchantment that permeates the story.”
To an Elizabethan audience, the wrongly accused queen would likely draw comparisons to Anne Boleyn, the mother of Queen Elizabeth I. Henry broke with the Catholic Church specifically to annul his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who have given him a daughter, Mary, but not a son. He formed the Anglican Church, making himself the head of it so that he wouldn’t have to ask the Pope for an annulment and that would result in a national crisis of faith. In doing so, he freed himself religiously to marry Boleyn, but Boleyn did not have a happy ending; she was beheaded after being falsely charged with adultery by her husband, King Henry VIII. Along with her some of Henry’s loyal court would also be executed as her supposed lovers, one of them, her own brother.
In today’s Trumpland post-impeachment climate, one can’t but admire the honesty and courage of Camillo. Camillo as well as Paulina bring us to a happy ending, but the play also points out the danger of both jealous men and kings. Having been humbled by a trial, Leontes is repentant. Humility seems to be in short supply in the current White House. In a country where the president has just called himself “the king,” the dangerous whims of royalty of the past, even the fictional past, are worth remembering as we head toward the presidential polls.
“The Winter’s Tale” continues until 11 April 2020 at A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. Tickets begin at $25. For more info call (626) 356-3121 or visit ANoiseWithin.org. Running time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.