“A sad tale’s best for winter,” a character explains near the beginning of “The Winter’s Tale.” That doesn’t mean that the play is necessarily a sad story — in fact, in Ben Lauer’s ’13 minimalist production of the Shakespearean tale in Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall’s Studio Theatre, there’s more than enough jocularity to go around. However, the frivolity is mixed with a deep emotional heft, which makes the character’s admission both accurate and false. The statement, much like the play itself, has the intent of heightening the audience’s expectations before thrashing them to the ground and ripping them to shreds.
To begin with, the play doesn’t fit neatly into a single dramatic genre. It is neither entirely a comedy nor a straightforward tragedy. Rather, it has elements of both and divides more or less neatly in the middle: The events prior to intermission take place in a wintry Sicily and have a tragic slant, while the second half is set in springtime Bohemia and is more comedic.
This means that for the frugal theatergoer, the purchase of a ticket actually pays for two totally different tales, each with its fair share of unique strengths and weaknesses. To widen the narrative chasm, the two strands of the story are temporally separated by about 16 years.
Moreover, the play is a bit like a thaumatrope, a popular Victorian optical illusion. The two sides of the story, tragedy and comedy, spin side by side, desperately trying to appear as if they are on the same plane, but they never quite make it to the same level. This might be a problem on the Bard’s end, but for the audience, it just means that they get a paranoia-soaked tragedy on one hand and a bawdy, preposterous farce on the other.
Jamie Ellis ’13 anchors the tragic portion of the production. He shines as the unreasonable King Leontes, convinced that his gracious wife, Erin McIntyre ’15, has conceived a child with another man. In a fit of anger, the king charges his wife with treason and banishes the newborn to the coast of Bohemia, despite protestations from the queen’s ally Pauline, played with impassioned fervor by Sunny Visnavich ’15.
The comedic second half picks up after a kindly shepherd, an absurdly in-character Robin Crigler ’14, promises to raise the exiled infant. Sixteen years have passed, and the infant is now the bright, smiling youth Perdita, played with infectious elasticity by Catherine Strycharz ’14. This section is anchored by Perdita’s romance with Prince Florizel (the charismatic Will Hart ’16) and highlighted by the nonsensical ramblings of the ludicrous pickpocket/musician/trickster Autolycus (an exceptional Christine Jacobs ’16).
Although the latter half of the play gets bogged down in tonal difficulties and implausible Shakespearean plot twists, it clearly shines as the stronger of the two. A certain sheep-shearing celebration featuring a staged swordfight and a saxophonist sheep — only in a college production, right? — has an energy unmatched anywhere else in the production. This raucous scene utilizes the space to its full potential. It engages the audience in a unique and interesting way in an environment that’s neither too cramped nor too spacious. In other words, it simply wouldn’t have worked as effectively on the PBK main stage.
This production strives for a sense of audience inclusion. Characters enter and exit scenes from a gap in the middle of the seating area, creating a world in which the audience is a part of the action, not merely seated outside or around it. The actors themselves feed off the audience’s gaze, successfully forging an emotional connection across the abyss between thespian and theatergoer.
In addition, there are many instances in the play when actors directly involve various members of the audience in the show. At one moment, Jacobs strums Autolycus’s ukulele suggestively at a an audience member; at the next, the Clown — Daniel Burrass ’16 — asks someone for the correct pronunciation of the name of a plant. The actors seem excited by the prospect of audience participation, and the effort feels remarkably genuine.
Overall, however, the biggest weakness of “The Winter’s Tale” is its tonal inconsistency. The narrative experience is reminiscent of eating an entree and dessert at the same time. Separately, they would be delicious, but together, they are not nearly as satisfying. Nonetheless, this production is rendered memorable by the uncompromising performances of the actors and the bold staging decisions of the director. I heartily recommend seeing it, if only to have fun with the actors as they perform a tale of “sprites and goblins.”
“The Winter’s Tale” opened last night and will run through this Sunday. Be sure to get there early in order to hear the contemporary musical stylings of the cast members themselves.