Capsule review: The Winter’s Tale – Oregon Shakespeare Festival

This is the first capsule review (of five) for the plays I saw last week in Ashland as part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2016 season. Full reviews will be in the podcast on Sunday.

First up: The Winter’s Tale.

The Winter's Tale - 2016 OSF
The Winter’s Tale – 2016 OSF

Wednesday night, we took in The Winter’s Tale in the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theater.  Now The Winter’s Tale has always fascinated me, with its cut-and-dried dichotomy of place, genre, and tone, its bizarre final scene, its seeming discomfort with exposition, and the greatest stage direction of all time (“Exit, pursued by a bear”…but more on that later).

When I had heard about this season’s production, with its Asian-American angle (split between China and seemingly northern California during the gold rush), I was intrigued, not the least because of the fact that I’m an American of Asian ancestry (I’m more Japanese than any other nationality).

This production, directed by Desdemona Chiang, plays up the dichotomy, with the first half of the play taking place in the formal and precise Chinese court, with elegant costuming and muted colors. The second half was colorful, a kind of hippie-day-glow riff on pioneer era California (though, honestly, I got a Steampunk vibe in there as well). And for me at least–after the restraint of the first half–it was this half that really worked, especially since that’s the portion that was stolen by the production’s Autolycus played by Stephen Michael Spencer. Spencer was obviously having a blast in his role of the strolling and six-string-strumming con artist and pickpocket.

On the other hand, Miriam. A Laube’s tough-minded Paulina almost saves the Sicilia sections…until that ending. Now, there’s two ways to play the ending: It’s a miracle and the statue comes to life; OR It’s no miracle, and Paulina has hid Hermione away for 16 years in hopes that a reconciliation would happen. Chiang does the production no favors by seemingly trying to have it both ways. The bringing to life of the statue is certainly magical with its use of lighting; the problem is that the scene can be laugh-inducing through almost comic levels of “c’mon, guys can’t you tell she’s real?”-type statements by Paulina. This crowd, this audience, well versed in the Canon and knowing Hermione’s coming back to life, laughed in seeming front-loaded irony. Maybe. Regardless, it just didn’t work (again, for me).

What did work, however, was the single best “Exit, pursued by a bear” I have ever seen. When Antigonus arrives in Bohemia, there seems to be a huge brown rock in the center of the stage, on the short platform often used to bring in set pieces like furniture. With a flash of lightning, we could see (because of our far left seats), that the back of this rock, now had a bear’s face. Another flash, and the claws became visible. And then it turned. A huge almost-Bunraku-style puppet driven by three puppeteers, one for the head and one for each front limb. It rose up and devoured the man. It wasn’t “exit pursued by a bear,” but “exit through the mouth of a bear,” then the creature was pulled back offstage by the movable platform. It was absolutely the thing to shift the play from tragic and sedate to comic and wild.

So, The Winter’s Tale…a mixed bag for me. One half kinda worked, the other was wonderful (is it even possible to have a balanced production?). Regardless, I’d still recommend it.

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