There were moments during the new play at the Alley Theatre that grabbed me by the proscenium of my throat and would not let go. Get thee to the theatre.
Why should I be surprised? The author of “The Winter’s Tale” is William Shakespeare, the be all and end all of dramatist.
Sure, most people are familiar with “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” because those are assigned reading in school and the favored object of multiple movie adaptations. But the dude wrote over three-dozen plays. It’s like you’re just discovering The Beatles and you’ve jammed out to “Hey Jude” and “Yesterday” and then you hear “Hey Bulldog” for the first time.
It seems useless to discuss the plot points because the real journey of discovery comes from the atmosphere that director Rob Melrose finds in Shakespeare’s text. The play goes from abject tragedy to hayseed comedy on the flip of a coin. The ending that seems to exist in another universe is simply magical.
There are two kings of mythical kingdoms whose friendship is tested when one suspects the other of having relations with his wife. While totally unfounded it set the stage for subterfuge and deception. When the house of cards crumbles one king finds himself immersed in remorse and the other sits quietly unaware that his personal trauma will become reality a generation down the road.
There are two speeches by female characters in the beginning of the play that are among the best ever written for the stage. The first delivered by Hermione (a fabulous and unforgettable performance from Tiffany Rachelle Stewart) as she pleas for her life during an unfair trial put on by her husband, and ruler of the land, Leontes, slays you with its call for justice where you know none will be delivered. This court scene recalls the poetry of Portia during “Merchant of Venice” pontificating on the “quality of mercy.”
The second comes from Paulina (a stunning Elizabeth Bunch, an Alley regular who never disappoints), the aristocratic wife of a member of Leontes’ nobility who defies her position to point out the injustice he has delivered.
But that’s just the tragedy section of “The Winter’s Tale.” When the lights come up after the intermission the whole affair turns into a comedy complete with country dancing and rural attitudes in sharp contrast to the ruling class. Throw in the cross pollination of gentry and aristocracy. It seems that Leontes had exiled the baby that Hermione bore before her trial and that child returns years later to make things correct.
Director Melrose places “The Winter’s Tale” in contemporary settings with a Houston vibe to the royal scenes and a country mood – think hill country Brenham – for the more lackadaisical sequences. There is a sculpture of a metal rabbit that sits stage left that while in the background seems to pop out. You can’t keep your eyes off the silver leporidae despite the fact it has nothing to do with the play.
When all is said and done Paulina evokes a kind of magical realism to make everything that has gone before become undone. A statue of the deceased Hermione speaks from beyond the grave.
Actor Kyle McLaughlin owns a winery in Washington state that markets its cabernet sauvignon as “pursued by bear.” That’s one of the defining lines of “The Winter’s Tale.” The entire play unrolls as experienced by the dead son of Hermione who utters the “bear” line.
You should go see this production immediately because chances are you will want to revisit it again.
“The Winter’s Tale” runs at the Alley Theatre until October 13th.