THE WINTER'S TALE, one of Shakespeare's last works, is a grab bag of genres. Three acts are tragedy, the fourth is primarily romance with comic undertones and the fifth is sheer fantasy--the statue of King Leontes'supposedly dead wife comes to life on stage. In other words, this is not an easy play to direct.
Director Paul Redford has ingeniously underscored most of the show with subtle percussion music, wood blocks, wind chimes and drums that unite the play and make credible the passing of 16 years and the revelation scene in the fifth act. John Krosnick, however, is occasionally heavy-handed with his drumsticks.
The show's first three acts are brilliant, the blocking simple and elegant and the acting convincing. The first three acts are a sad tale, "best for winter." In the fourth act, the play metamorphoses into a springtime world of romance and comedy: Redford's interpretation of this act is fit only for the Ziegfeld follies. He has included kick lines, scat numbers and Three Stooges slapstick falls. These numbers are endless and the act almost succeeds in ruining an otherwise brilliant production.
Redford has bizarrely chosen the '20s as the setting for this play, a decision chiefly noticeable in the first three acts by the costumes of the performers. In the fourth act, the time setting of the production returns with a vengeance, as peasants do flapper numbers to Louis Armstrong tapes.
In the first three acts, Redford works with a simple set consisting of a narrow, straight-back throne set on a raised platform. His blocking of each scene subtly underscores the action as it develops in the play.
Leontes (Chris Clemenson) sits on this throne in the opening few scenes, his profile facing the audience, as the rest of the actors celebrate the King of Bohemia's arrival. This presentation immediately gives the audience the notion that this man must have something to hide. When Leontes finally speaks, the hidden becomes obvious--his jealousy wells to the surface. He even doubts at this point that Mamillius, his heir, is his own son.
Leontes is one of those daunting Shakespearean leads that is almost impossible to pull off. His jealousy of his wife in the first three acts must grow until he loses the ability to think or function as king, or as human being. After his tyrannical madness, Leontes must reappear in the fifth act and be convincingly penitent and remorseful. He must also make credible the revalation scene in which the 'statue' of his wife, who for 16 years he has thought dead, comes to life from her pedestal.
Not only is Clemenson captivating to watch, but his command of Shakespeare's language is a rarity. He rules not only the language but the space around him. When he says "stars," the stars twinkle in the ceiling of the Adams House dining hall. Clemenson's acting has no gimmicks and no cliches--his performance is a tour de force of sheer talent and intelligence.
THE ONLY PERFORMANCE that approaches Clemenson's is Grace Shobet's courageous Paulina, and the scenes between Shohet and Clemenson are the best in the play. Shohet outshines Kim Bendheim (Hermione), who is distractingly nervous in the opening scene but rallies to embody virtue, as Shakespeare intended. Bendheim is particularly strong in her trial scene, where Redford's blocking is also at its best--simply but effectively showing the relative virtues of the characters. Hermione stands on a small box above all her accusers; with their backs to the audience.
After this scene begins the perilous descent into the cheap gimmickery of the fourth act. David Levi's Camillo is a barometer for the travesties of this act. Levi starts as a glorious Camillo, wonderfully obsequious to his lord but courageous enough to flee with the King of Bohemia. Levi enters the fourth act wearing a turbanlike sunbonnet and granny sunglasses, doing a mincing dance. The Adams House crowd roared.
Levi is not alone. Ed Redlich wears a white Santa Claus beard for his disguise. Dan Breslin's Autolycus is complete with a black construction-paper moustache. Breslin's performance is all jerking eyebrows, scat songs and slapstick falls.
The falls would be great for "The Three Stooges," and Bonnie Zimering's choerography perfect for Guys and Dolls, but what are they doing in Shakespeare? The fourth act ought to be a romance, but Redford's tidal wave of gimmickry floods any romantic element.
Finally, however, Redford the musical comedy director goes home and Redford the Shakespearian director returns. The last scene is as difficult to present as the eye-gouging scene in King Lear. Redford stages it identically to the courtroom scene, with Hermione on a pedestal above the rest of the players. It is a beautiful idea, uniting the play--allowing the virtue of Hermione to conquer all this time around. Clemenson once again masters the complexity of his role, as he wondrously discovers that the statue is in fact his living wife.
PERHAPS WHEN THE ACTION switched to Bohemia in the fourth act, Redford stayed behind in Sicilia. In another production an act as terrible as this would destroy the entire show. But Redford's exceptional talents shine nonetheless in the other four acts--which are gilded by the exceptional performances of Shohet and Clemenson. Shohet's performance is of a calibre rare for the Harvard stage. Clemenson's performance is a of a calibre rare for any stage.