Talking tall

The Winter's Tale

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Alexandra Ornitz
Safe Haven Productions/The Bard's Wench
American Theater of Actors: Beckmann Theater
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by John Chatterton

A Shakespeare production succeeds when someone can sit down without knowing the play and understand it at one sitting. Shakespeare, because of arcane language and untrained actors, tends to come across as 90 percent thunder and 10 percent lightning. This production of The Winter's Tale passed the first-sitting test with a high grade.

Sicilia's King Leontes has been entertaining his neighbor, Bohemia's King Polixenes. Leontes becomes jealous when his queen, Hermione, pays too much attention to Polixenes. When Hermione has a baby, Leontes is convinced that it's Polixenes's, and tells a faithful servant, Antigonus, to abandon it on a hillside. The baby is found and brought up under the name of Perdita by a shepherd and eventually falls in love with Polixenes's son, Florizel. They return to Sicilia on a state visit. (Poor Antigonus is shipwrecked, cast away, and forever memorialized by the stage direction, "Exit, pursued by a bear.")

Meanwhile, Leontes has received news that his son has sickened and died and his wife, weakened in childbirth, has followed him. The reconciliation of Perdita, Polixenes, and Florizel with Leontes is facilitated by the apparently miraculous return from the dead of Hermione, who didn't die after all but instead pretends to be a statue of herself come to life.

The level of acting in general ranged from solid to outstanding. David Dean Hastings's Leontes laid down a solid foundation for the play in a difficult part. Angela Moore made the most of Hermione, a picture of a queen falsely accused. Andrew Marston, as Camillo, a faithful servant, conveyed the torture of having to abandon his homeland over his lord's unjust actions (he doubled as Time, the chorus). Tim Moore performed a quick transformation from Antigonus to the Shepherd. Kittson O'Neill was Paulina, wife to Antigonus and Hermione's confidante, a lady who stood up to Leontes with fire in her eyes. Robb Hunter made an especially strong impression as a courtier who has to tell Leontes (in a moving speech) that his son has died, as a Mariner, and as Florizel. John Long and Timothy Tait made hay as the Shepherd's son, Clown, and a Bohemian rogue, Autolycus, roles rich in comedy. Adin Alai went for the stereotype as a drunken Gaoler but held up well as Polixenes. Ben Norbitz brought the fresh charm of extreme youth to Mamillius, Leontes's son (that his fellow actors showed a more sophisticated vocal and physical technique is to be expected). The whole company, when not playing court functionaries, doubled as shepherds and -esses, often in party mode.

Ornitz pulled out all the ensemble stops. The cast created a wonderful storm, swallowing up Antigonus, and underscored much of the action with found percussion. Costumes were basic black, with characteristic embellishments that hung from walls and ceiling -- along with some well-chosen props, when not in use. For lights, the starkness of some overhead PARs transformed into the expressiveness of handheld "cliplights" as night swiftly fell. (The scenes in the dark, with actors creating sound effects or music, were studies in controlled pandemonium.) Ornitz designed costumes and lights.

This company combined an American passion for the emotions with an Anglophile dedication to the language, a rarity indeed Off-Off-Broadway -- or anywhere else. This was a tall Tale to make an audience weep.

(Also featuring Nicole Callender, Dave Robinson, Al Foote III, and Heather Ullsvik.)

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Set: N/A
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2002 John Chatterton