AISLE SAY Twin Cities


by William Shakespeare
Directed by Jonathan Munby
Presented by the Guthrie Theater
818 South Second St.
Minneapolis, MN 55415

Reviewed on February 4, 2011
by Sophie Kerman & Anna Rosensweig

The ladies' room at the Guthrie Theater during intermission was predictably crowded, so it shouldn't have been a surprise that it was a treasure trove of insight into the audience's reactions to the opening night production of The Winter's Tale. While Sophie stood outside on lookout, Anna slyly went on a reconnaissance mission. Enter: two middle-aged well-heeled women in matching black ensembles probably bought at Neiman Marcus. "Oh yes, it's interesting," said one to the other, "I'm understanding much more than I thought I would!"

Why do people spend so much money to see a play they don't expect to understand? How does the Guthrie maintain its status as the Twin Cities' preeminent theater of interpretations of works one expects to find in the Norton Anthology of English Literature? Unfortunately, the recent production of The Winter's Tale did very little to answer these questions, but it did highlight some of the unacknowledged baggage surrounding the modern "highbrow cultural experience."

Of course, some of these problems may not be the Guthrie's, because the play itself is one of Shakespeare's most bizarre. It opens at a New Year's celebration in Sicilia, where Kind Leontes' jealousies are quickly awakened by his wife Hermione's friendship with his best friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia. The action rapidly spirals into tragedies of both personal and political consequence. After a series of fruitless attempts by Hermione, Leontes' advisors, and Paulina (a noblewoman in court) to exculpate the innocent queen, the Oracle of Delphi finally convinces the king that his wife is blameless, but it is too late: she has already died of grief, leaving behind only the infant daughter whom Leontes has already sent away to be cast into the wilderness.

But this just the first half of the play. The second half picks up sixteen years later in the midst of Bohemia. Shakespeare must have anticipated his audience's need for comic relief, because this section is more in the manner of a woodland farce than a Greek tragedy. The castaway daughter, Perdita, is secretly in love with Polixenes's son Florizel, the prince of Bohemia. After the requisite physical comedy, bawdy songs, and cases of mistaken identity, the Bohemian court ends up back in Sicilia, where the families are reunited. And here is the most inexplicable moment in perhaps all of Shakespeare: a statue memorializing the dead Hermione magically comes back to life - or was Hermione alive all along, hidden away until Leontes had thoroughly repented? Either way, the play ends abruptly, with a series of happy embraces and tearful recognitions.

Any theater would have trouble making sense of such an ungainly plot, but one would hope the Guthrie would be up to the task. Where they succeeded, they excelled: the sets designed by Alexander Dodge struck the right balance between the stark official trappings of Sicilia and the free-loving forest glens of Bohemia. The acting by Paulina (Helen Carey) and all of the comic relief characters (Michael Thomas Holmes as a singing, swindling rogue and Raye Birk and John Catron as a Perdita's bumbling backwoods adopted family) were outstanding, as was the design of an impressively lifelike grizzly bear - unfortunately only onstage for a brief climactic moment - by Christopher Lutter-Gardella. Many of the other characters, including Hermione (Michelle O'Neill), had moments of real pathos.

While many elements of the production worked well, the hinge of this uneven plot should have been the fall and moral redemption of Leontes, who is on stage for almost the entire first half of the play. The interpretation by Michael Hayden, however, failed to convince: what should been a slow descent into the madness of jealousy was instead a quick transformation over just a few lines. He also fell into the far-too-common Shakespearean trap of punching the end of each line, resulting in some bafflingly incomprehensible line readings which came across as, "mumblemumblemumble ADULTERESS!"

We hasten to add that the lack of subtlety in Hayden's performance was a symptom, not the cause, of a general tendency of the production to lean on theatrical artifice rather than careful stagecraft and interpretation. If the Guthrie did not have such a generous endowment to lean on, perhaps they would have cultivated dramatic nuance over elaborate set pieces. Some of the best moments of the play were in the light physical comedy of the second act, but even these were often burdened by overwrought and superfluous production values. The result was a performance whose many disparate components never cohered into a unified artistic vision.

Such large-scale yet unsatisfying productions lead us to wonder: what is our collective investment in staging drama that does not move us, does not educate us, does not entertain us, yet allows us to walk out of the theater saying that we have experienced culture at its finest? This is not to say that we shouldn't put on Shakespeare or donate to prominent artistic venues such as the Guthrie; rather, we should be expecting more from the "high culture" that these institutions represent. If Shakespeare is not something we expect to understand and enjoy, then it is no wonder the arts are seen by so much of the country as elitist, inaccessible, and unworthy of public support. This is why it is so disappointing that the Guthrie, which clearly has the financial resources to mount a production that might have brought Shakespeare out of the Elizabethan fog, did not shoulder the responsibility to interpret resonant, powerful, and far-reaching theater.

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