A Tepid Ending for ‘Winter’s Tale’

Good acting, flawed production characterize play

The theater at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center is an old ballroom that gets better with altitude. On the ground, a linoleum floor and interlocking gray wall panels seem like they belong in a middle school cafeteria. Yet the lavishly decorated ceiling, rich with blue and green paint, seems to have avoided any kind of unnecessary municipal “improvement” over the years.

The room was an evocative setting for the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s new production of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” directed by Curt L. Tofteland and produced by Sara Stackhouse. Though there were scenes of great humor, emotional depth, and rapturous melodicism—it is Shakespeare, after all—the cast (occasionally) and the production team (almost always) were generally not up to the script they had to work with.

“The Winter’s Tale” is usually called one of Shakespeare’s romances, which is a cheap way of saying that it doesn’t fit nicely into the categories of Comedy, Tragedy, or History. In the first half of the play, King Leontes (Ricardo Pitts-Wiley) wrongly suspects that his wife Hermione (Paula Langton) is pregnant by his friend King Polixenes of Bohemia (Joel Colodner).

Leontes imprisons Hermione, ensures that the daughter she bears in prison is banished to Bohemia, and only realizes his error when it’s too late.

Pitts-Wiley as Leontes was a charismatic physical presence, and his hurried descent into paranoia and nihilism was frightening because it was more than a little persuasive. When an aide questions Leontes’ suspicions, he flies into a nervous rage and delivers Shakespeare’s famous speech of nothings: “Nor nothing have these nothings, if this be nothing.” It stands in stark opposition to Hermione’s graceful nobility.

Yet these complex emotional exchanges were frequently undermined by the arrangement of the theater. The stage, in the center of the room, was an unadorned square, and the audience sat on all four sides. So, no matter how consistently the actors circled each other in an effort to address each side of the room, someone wasn’t going to see anything at all.

Furthermore, only Richard Snee as Antigonus seemed to remember that the mood gets lighter in the play’s second half. While the rest of the cast—unflinchingly grim and absurdly costumed in black with blue accents by Charles Shoonmaker—ended up looking like high tragedy gone to outer space. Snee’s fatalism, by contrast, was laced with much-needed humor.

After all, Antigonus turns out to be the victim of Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” It’s grim and horrible and everything, but come on. Bears are funny.

And this bear was imaginatively realized by the cast, who huddled together and devoured Antigonus before turning into a herd of sheep in the next scene. The moment is one of many in which an idea from some cast member seems to have shined through Tofteland’s clusmy direction. Another was the blessing given by the citizens of Bohemia, a wiggle of the fingers used to great comic effect.

Bohemia is where the mood of “A Winter’s Tale” shifts into the realm of comedy, but while the actors deftly managed the switch, the production barely differentiated between Leontes’ palace and the pastoral oceanside kingdom. Lighting Designer (a.k.a. “light switch operator”) Caleb Wertenbaker’s visual palette was lamentably consistent throughout the production: the lights stayed on.

The play’s shift to Bohemia repositions its action in time as well as in setting. Fifteen years have elapsed since Leontes sent away his infant daughter. Raised by kind—if simple—shepherds, Perdita (Cristi Miles) falls in love with Florizel (James Ryen), the son of Polixenes and Prince of Bohemia. Florizel does not reveal his royal heritage to Perdita, who is likewise unaware of her royalty.

Their mutual seduction at a festival to celebrate their village’s annual sheep-shearing constitutes one of Shakespeare’s most beautiful romantic scenes. Unfortunately, Ryen pushed too hard on the nobility of love, while Miles took innuendo to the point of vulgarity. There’s no reason that love couldn’t be simultaneously noble and sexual, but here the actors resorted to caricature.

The traveling salesman, thief, and rogue Autolycus (John Kuntz) also enters the play in the second half, appearing at the festival with a trench-coat full of pretty things (mostly womens’ accessories) to peddle. Though Kuntz played the irrepressibly irresponsible Autolycus with a little too much enthusiasm, he had a terrific sense of the play’s dramatic momentum, and his ability to influence the actors around him was impressive.

It is Autolycus who makes the happy ending of “A Winter’s Tale” possible. Perdita is reunited with the penitent Leontes, whose reappearance on the stage is welcome and touching. And Florizel, who would not have been allowed to marry a lowly shepherd’s daughter, is thrilled to discover that his beloved is actually a princess. Here, as in so many other places in Shakespeare, nobility shines through any disguise.

The final scene is tantalizingly ambiguous, either a miraculous resurrection or nothing more than 15 years of hiding. John Kuntz—formerly Autolycus—presides over the concluding action as the oracle of Apollo, becoming both a petty thief and a vehicle of divine truth. In “A Winter’s Tale,” deception—often the same as the ability to tell a convincing story—and divinity are not so different. In this production, one or the other may have been on display at a given moment, but the two rarely shared the stage.

Staff writer Richard S. Beck can be reached at rbeck@fas.harvard.edu.