"A Winter's Tale" for summer stock

Kitsch and kick-lines in Bard's Big Top rendition of Shakespeare's late-life "problem play" 

Sicilian court intrigue: three's a crowd. Photo: David Blue

It’s 20 years, by his own count, since Dean Paul Gibson encountered “The Winter’s Tale,” first as an audience member and later as a player in serried Bard on the Beach productions. But only this season has he gotten around to directing his own rendition of this enigmatic script.

Not that the 26-year Bard veteran has shied away from directing in general. He’s helmed productions of everything from Hamlet to Spamalot. But the tragico-comic-pastoral mash-up of “Winter’s Tale” -- probably an ageing Shakespeare’s last London offering before retiring back to Stratford -- presents unique challenges.

The play abounds in abrupt changes of mood, mind, circumstance and locale. More than half the action is set in a tensely paranoid, intrigue-riddled royal court; but the rest occurs in a contrastingly sunny, idealized rustic hamlet. Act I (in Gibson’s redaction of the script) climaxes with a bear mauling a courtier to death; Act II with a statue miraculously coming to life. And, between the two acts falls a 16-year hiatus.

With such a zigzagging narrative, it might help for the tempo of the production to every so often rest a beat, allowing the characters (and audience) a chance to digest some of the many switcheroo’s. But not in this staging; Gibson has his actors rush headlong through their lines, tread on each other’s speeches and lurch from one mental extremity to another with barely an instant to let things sink in.

Kevin MacDonald, as poor, mad King Leontes, suffers most from this stress. Within the very first scene, he morphs instantaneously from a loving friend and husband to a murderously jealous tyrant. And then, just as abruptly, sinks back into a puddle of penitent abjection – all before the wine bar reopens for intermission.

That leaves his two co-stars, Sereana Malani as his wronged queen and Ian Butcher as his estranged friend, to scramble along behind him in their grief and umbrage. The only one who can keep ahead of Leontes, it seems, is the tart-tongued court matron Paulina (Lois Anderson). She dares to speak (or often shriek) truth to power, whether as frantic intercessor, avenging harpy or martinet of the king’s penance.

Anderson also doubles as the play’s Chorus, announcing time lapses, scene shifts and off-stage plot-points. In this she’s backed by a phalanx of masked mummers who gesticulate running responses to just about everything described or enacted onstage.

The pantomimes (choreographed by Tracey Power) are eloquent and apt, but the stage feels crowded in a way that obscures, rather than enhances, the action; perhaps a tad too much of a good thing. Same goes for composer Malcolm Dow’s musical score; catchy and tuneful, but overabundant and so lushly orchestrated as to practically smother the delicate poetry of Shakespeare’s song lyrics.

A bit more restraint, at least, marks set designer Pam Johnson’s staging: just a row of moveable Ionic columns for the court scenes and a stylized “cubistic” tree for the rustic frolics. Not even a backdrop. Rather the rear of the stage opens directly onto a panorama of Burrard Inlet, which made for some neat juxtapositions. The evening we attended, a sternwheeler party boat cruised by in the Vancouver sunset just as play's narrative was describing a shipwreck off the stormy coast of Bohemia.

Most of the Bohemian action, though, is anything but stormy, and these village scenes come off more successfully. For one thing, the prosaic “clown” speech of the rustic characters is more digestible than the florid pentameters of late-Shakespearean court diction. And even when they do speak in verse, the incognito young royals in Bohemia make a winsome pair.

Kaitlin Williams plays Perdita with the airs, accent and cream-fed charm of a Tidewater debutante; Austin Eckert seems suitably smitten as Prince Florizel, her doting swain. Perdita’s adoptive father (David M. Adams) and brother (Chris Cochrane) present a pair of endearingly humane bumpkins. And Ben Elliott, presumably aided by “physical theatre choreographer” Wendy Gorling, turns in a show-stealing performance as the manic cutpurse Autolycus, who inadvertently facilitates a trifecta of happy endings despite his own professed malice-towards-all.

Shakespeare supposedly titled this script a "Winter’s Tale” not because of any seasonal connection, but rather to reflect the fabulous nature of the story, as exempt from logic and verisimilitude as any hibernal fireside yarn. But in this year’s Bard production, the play goes down well as a summer smoothie – thick, rich and not all that nourishing, but frothy and eminently palatable. 

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