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By John Quinn
“A sad tale’s best for winter.” So says young Mamillius, heir to the throne of Sicilia and character in William Shakespeare’s romance, “The Winter’s Tale.” “Out of the mouths of babes …” they say. Except Mamillius doesn’t say that line, or any other line, in Slipstream Theatre Initiative’s reinvention of Shakespeare’s story. He’s still a babe in arms.
That’s one of the more minor alterations in Bailey Boudreau’s adaptation. This performance script is a lean abridgement, shedding scenes and characters to focus on the core story. Spoiler alert: Shakespeare kills Mamillius off in Act III, Scene ii; Boudreau would have him spirited off to prosper in anonymity only to emerge to claim his birthright. “The Winter’s Tale” is considered a comedy; how better to assure “And they all lived happily ever after” than by assuring us “And they all lived?”
“The Winter’s Tale” concerns the intertwined fates of the royal houses of Sicilia and Bohemia, but we might just as well start, “Once upon a time in a faraway land …” King Leontes of Sicilia (Steve Xander Carson) has been hosting a state visit from his childhood companion, Polixenes of Bohemia. Polixenes (Ryan Ernst) has stayed nine months and really needs to get home to his throne. Leontes is unwilling to see the party end, so he implores his queen Hermione (Luna Alexander) to apply a little sweet talk. She’s too successful – seeing his wife and best friend so “familiar,” Leontes literally snaps. In short order he accuses his wife of adultery, sends a loyal retainer, Camillo (Graham Todd), to poison Polixenes, and orders his newborn daughter to be abandoned in the wilderness.
Camillo instead warns Polixenes and spirits the Queen and her children to – of all places – rural Bohemia. Paulina (Jaclynn Cherry), a woman loyal to the Queen, tells the tyrant that his entire family is dead.
“The Winter’s Tale” jumps 16 years to find a scandal in Bohemia (take that, A. Conan Doyle!). Polixenes’ heir, Florizel (Ryan Ernst, now playing his previous character’s son), is courting a beautiful shepherdess named Perdita (Luna Alexander – do you sense a pattern here?) who is, of course, the newborn from the first act, grown to womanhood. Madness is healed, identities revealed, fidelity is rewarded and “They all lived . . .” etc., etc.
I’m not casting stones when I describe “The Winter’s Tale” as “Shakespeare Lite.” Bailey Boudreau is directing his adaptation, and really knows how to tell the story. But, consider that in my Howard Staunton edition of the “Complete Works,” “The Winter’s Tale” is 66 pages long. This show runs about an hour and a half. “Antony and Cleopatra” is 67 pages long in the collection and Shakespeare in Detroit’s March production ran a tad over three hours. One may conclude, then, that a lot of text has been jettisoned. Is that a bad thing?
It won’t please the diehard Shakespearean devotee. And, truth be told, a lot of brilliant material hit the cutting-room floor. The editing, though, has produced a nimble, accessible text that neatly wraps up the core story while still observing The Bard’s themes.
“A Winter’s Tale” is a counterbalance to “Othello”; two noble men, guilty of the deadly sin of jealousy, bring ruin on themselves and those around them. The difference, of course, is that Leontes repents. Saved from damnation by faithful servants (and 16 years of purgatory), Leontes is redeemed; Othello is doomed.
This production of “The Winter’s Tale” might be described as “bohemian.” It is performed at the Michigan Actors Studio in Ferndale with minimal set, lights and costuming. Shakespeare performed in full regalia can end with the technical aspects distracting from the drama. I quote again a college professor from my callow youth: “One goes to the theater not to see Shakespeare, but to hear Shakespeare.”
Aye, there’s the rub. The performance space is a two-story-high cavern, and lot of dialogue is lost in the rafters. Soliloquies, too, are lost; a character talking to him or herself is never really alone – the audience has to be in on the “conversation.”
Noticeable in line deliveries is a tendency to actively break the meter of Shakespeare’s poetry. On the upside, it makes the dialogue more conversational and thus more modern. On the downside, it interferes with the audience’s interpretation of the text. These plays are playable 400 years later because the playwright knew exactly where to place the accents – on the key words of the text. Resistance is futile; Shakespeare wins every time.
A “winter’s tale,” to an Elizabethan, is one in the tradition of folk tales everywhere: rather outlandish, superficial; something tossed out to while away the dark hours of long, cold winter nights. The Starks are right – “winter is coming.” I guess the nearest modern equivalent to legends around the hearth is organizing our Netflix stream. There are alternatives to “Game of Thrones” binges. Michigan Actors Studio is toasty, the audience affable, the fare entertaining. Just bundle up for the drive so you won’t freeze your winter’s tail.
‘The Winter’s Tale’
Slipstream Theatre Initiative
at Michigan Actors Studio
648 E. Nine Mile Road, Ferndale
7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 14, 21, 28
7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 15, 22, 29
7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 16, 23, 30
7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 10, 17, 31
1 hour, 30 minutes