Review: Enthralling WINTER'S TALE Spins a Storybook Ending to Gamm's Season

By: Apr. 27, 2016
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Any critic or scholar who attempts to compile a definitive list of William Shakespeare's most quotable lines faces a daunting task. The canon is packed full with contenders as each of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets yields phrases that cut through to the heart and soul of the human condition. Some might argue that "parting is such sweet sorrow" from Romeo and Juliet tops the list, while others would point to Hamlet's oft-referenced, deeply introspective "to be, or not to be."

And then there's the ever-popular "[Exit, pursed by a bear]." True enough, this last is a stage direction and not spoken word, but the line unfailingly intrigues, amuses, and stands as perhaps the most memorable stage direction in the whole of English drama.

Yet remarkable as its pursuit is, the bear fills a relatively small role in the grand narrative scheme of The Winter's Tale. The play is one of Shakespeare's later works and one that demonstrates a master at the height of his powers. The story begins as King Leontes falls prey to fevered imaginations. He obstinately, groundlessly accuses his wife of adultery and his irrational allegations tear his family and kingdom apart. When Leontes finally comes to his senses and realizes his folly, his entire world is in ruins. The only glimmer of hope remaining is an oracle's enigmatic, seemingly impossible prophecy of far-off restoration and redemption.

While The Winter's Tale generally falls under the designation of "comedy," it contains enough heartbreak to rival Shakespeare's great tragedies and enough whimsy call to mind classical fairy-tale enchantments. Pawtucket's Gamm Theater has taken this complex, unique blend of storytelling and staged a glorious Winter's Tale, proving once again why the company is critically and popularly lauded as the gold standard for Shakespearean productions in Rhode Island.

The Gamm's Artistic Director, Tony Estrella, delivers a powerful performance as King Leontes. Leontes' actions are so deplorable, it would be easy to paint him as a tyrannical villain, but Estrella portrays the monarch as a complex and fully realized character. He first bears himself with the nobility of a sovereign and shows an easy, affectionate bond with his family and friends (especially young Prince Mamillius, played charmingly by Bedros Kevorkian). In fact, Leontes' doubts and fears are initially positioned as laughable; gradually, however, Estrella allows the king's reason to unravel and to a completely devastating effect. There is a true feeling of dismay in the air as Leontes loses touch with reality, especially as Estrella paces the aisles and makes his arguments in the midst of the audience. Later, Estrella wears the king's all-encompassing grief as a mantle and his sorrow is palpable to the back row of the theater.

Karen Carpenter plays the unfortunate Queen Hermione with great grace and dignity. She captures Hermione's stunned, bewildered reaction when the king raves his accusations in her face, then rallies to give a righteous and impassioned vindication when the queen's "offenses" come to trial. Carpenter allows Hermione's defenses to crack when she refers to her children, but then only to sorrow. Not an ounce of fear shows in Carpenter's expression, silently underscoring the queen's righteous standing and the verity of her unblemished conduct.

While the king's advisors offer token efforts to make him see reason, only the noblewoman Paulina frankly and fearlessly tells Leontes the truth. Paulina is one of the strongest and most intriguing female characters in Shakespeare's writings, and Jeanine Kane shapes her into a truly formidable opponent. Paulina stands unflinchingly before the king's displeasure, tenderly commends his newborn daughter to his care, and serves as his conscience and confidant during his 16-year penance. Kane blends each of Paulina's defining traits - devoted friend, indefatigable advocate, grieving widow, speaker of truth - into a compelling and memorable characterization.

Other standout performances include Richard Donelly as the kindly, ill-fated Antigonus, Jesse Hinson as Bohemian king Polixenes, and Steven Liebhauser as the faithful Camillo. Jeff Church and Nora Eschenheimer are an appealing duo as Prince Florizel and Perdita. While their romance is youthful, it feels neither flighty nor naïve.

Fred Sullivan, Jr. masterfully directs the cast as the narrative pivots from lighthearted romance to the blackest of sorrows. Many times these transitions occur within the space of a simple line or phrase, and Sullivan seamlessly guides his actors from scenes of horror and grief to those of outright hilarity. In fact, Sullivan is the author of much of that hilarity when he takes to the stage as the singing, dancing, and deliciously scheming pickpocket, Autolycus.

The Gamm artistic team also does a commendable job in visually creating the world of The Winter's Tale. Jessie Darrell Jarbadan's royal costumes suggest Edwardian-era stylings, while the simpler garb of the Bohemian shepherds boasts a colorful, Gypsy-like flair. A spare set by Patrick Lynch is versatile enough to double as a kingly throne room or the site of a rustic sheep-shearing celebration, while props (such as Autolycus' delightfully animated, multi-hued box of wares) help to establish place and character. And, of course, Rico Carroccio's all-important bear is at once fanciful and menacing in its pursuit.

The Winter's Tale runs at the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange Street, Pawtucket, RI through May 29, 2016. Ticket prices range from $41 to $49. To purchase tickets, contact the box office at (401) 723-4266 or visit The Gamm online at www.gammtheatre.org.

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Photo by Peter Goldberg



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