Most of Shakespeare’s plays are conventionally classified as either histories, tragedies or comedies, but there are a few exceptions that can’t be so easily pigeonholed. Written very late in the Bard’s career, The Winter’s Tale straddles the border between tragedy and comedy and is usually described as a “romance.” The first three acts are intense and somewhat grim, involving morbid jealousy, false accusations, the death of a child and the exile of many innocents. The final two acts morph into a pastoral comedy populated by bumbling rustics, capped by an improbably happy ending in which even the cruel, self-deluded king who triggered all the trouble finds redemption.
Since in Tudor times calling something a “winter’s tale” was akin to us calling it an “old wives’ tale,” a “fisherman’s yarn” or a “shaggy dog story,” the title fits the fanciful goings-on well. Setting the tale in Sicily and Bohemia, the playwright must have been banking on the Globe Theatre groundlings’ ignorance of geography, since, for reasons related to the prickly international politics of his day, he conferred a seacoast on the landlocked latter country!
But for all its fantasy elements, The Winter’s Tale tackles some of the same darker motifs of Shakespeare’s great tragedies: Leontes recalls Othello in his unjust treatment of his virtuous wife Hermione, as well as Lear in his heartbreakingly wrongheaded rejection of his daughter Perdita (which appropriately translates as “lost”). The play also hearkens back to the “lost heir” motif of many a heroic myth of classical times, in which a softhearted vassal saves a condemned infant from a mad monarch’s wrath by fostering him or her secretly with a kindly peasant. Some Shakespeare scholars believe that Perdita and Hermione were intended to represent Queen Elizabeth I and her mother, Anne Boleyn, who was executed by Henry VIII on trumped-up charges of adultery after she failed to supply him with a male heir.
So it’s a play that gives actors both comic and serious plenty of grist for their mill. Veteran performers can get their teeth into Leontes, Paulina and Antigonus; Florizel and Perdita are a feisty pair of young romantic leads. The older actress playing the wronged Hermione may spend the middle of the play offstage, but she must be up to the challenge of standing very still indeed for a long time in the final act as the “statue” that “magically” comes to life, thanks to the wiles of her faithful friend Paulina. The scurrilous peddler Autolycus is a juicy role for a character actor; and somebody even gets to put on a bear suit and chase poor Antigonus to his offstage demise. Add a Clown and a couple of moony shepherdesses and you’ve got a diverting mix of styles and situations.
The Winter’s Tale is not one of Shakespeare’s more frequently performed works, so it’s a joy to know that we’ll have many opportunities to see it this summer, thanks to the Bird-on-a-Cliff Theatre Company. It’s the first of two productions in the Woodstock Shakespeare Festival’s 18th summer season, to be presented outdoors on an Elizabethan-style stage on the Comeau Property, just outside downtown Woodstock. It will run through August 4, with performances beginning at 5 p.m. every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Bring the whole family, a blanket or lawn chairs and a picnic; admission is free, amazingly, but no one will protest if you bring along a donation as well. This hardworking-but-uncompensated company of experienced actors does it for love, and Bird-on-a-Cliff thrives on voluntary public support. Nicola Sheara directs The Winter’s Tale, and the cast includes David Aston-Reese, Chris Bailey, Michael DaTorre, Bethany Goldpaugh, Elli Michaels, Christina Reeves and Bob Sheridan, among others.
The second summer 2013 Woodstock Shakespeare Festival production will be André Gregory’s Manhattan Project adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, directed by David Aston-Reese. It will be presented from August 9 to September 1. For more information about the Festival, call (845) 247-4007 or visit www.birdonacliff.org.
The Winter’s Tale, Fridays-Sundays, July 12-August 4, 5 p.m., free, Woodstock Shakespeare Festival, Comeau Property, 45 Comeau Drive, Woodstock; (845) 247-4007, www.birdonacliff.org.