Friday, April 16, 2010

Beam Me Up, Bard; it’s a Blizzard Down Here!

[caption id="attachment_1449" align="alignleft" width="214" caption="Pictured: (from left) USC Guest Actor Donald Sage Mackay (Leontes), second-year USC MAT student Sarah Degn (Hermione) and second-year USC MFA student Brian Clowdus (Polixenes). Photo by Jason Ayer. "][/caption]

By Arik Bjorn

It is easy to understand why A Midsummer Night’s Dream has enjoyed immense popularity amongst William Shakespeare’s “seasonal” fantasy plays—the other being A Winter’s Tale, which is currently being staged offseason, as it were, as the final main stage performance of Theatre South Carolina’s (USC) 2010 season.

Puck, Jackass & Co. are universal characters in a poetic, soap bubbly romantic comedy which plays popular folly to a theatre-going world no longer seemingly able to embrace the psychological depths of A Merchant in Venice or Coriolanus.  However, Autolycus the cutpurse, Puck’s wintry counterpoint, and the gentry and plebs of Sicilia and Bohemia who round out A Winter’s Tale, have been historically damned to a play that is part Jacobean retrospective on King Henry VIII’s wench-whacking and part oracular lost episode of the original Star Trek series.

Decided advantage:  Puck.

Some critics label A Winter’s Tale a “problem play” due to a perceived incongruent melding of Act One’s Macbeth-like hand wringing with Act Two’s fantastical shepherd’s pie-in-the-face.  Yet given the current pop culture historical revival of all things Henry VIII (Showtime’s The Tudors and the novels The Other Boleyn Girl and Wolf Hall) and our current obsession with medieval fantasy (Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and HBO’s forthcoming series A Game of Thrones), A Winter’s Tale might be on the cusp of national revival.

In fact, if directed with a precise vision—as this production is by University of Illinois professor and Utah Shakespeare Festival associate artistic director Kathleen F. Conlin—audiences will not find themselves facing a problem so much as an engaging twin billing.

Outside shot going forward:  Autolycus.

I had neither read nor seen A Winter’s Tale, and I resisted the temptation to do any research prior to my preview performance deflowering.  Confronting a Shakespeare play for the first time is exhilarating and daunting—yet not quite as daunting as the Act One demise of the Sicilian courtier, Antigonus, who is eaten alive by a carnivorous bear, which is terrifyingly represented via digital scrim by world-class set designer and USC professor, Nic Ularu.

The stage note for this Act One finale moment reads like something out of a John Irving novel:  “Exit, pursued by a bear.”  It’s just another quirky moment that sets A Winter’s Tale apart from the rest of the Shakespearean canon, as is the final marmoreal scene which mixes Hecatean Macbeth magic with the myth of Pygmalion.

I would do patrons who similarly have never experienced A Winter’s Tale a disservice by outlining the story.  Having the “infected jelly” beat out of you by William Shakespeare is a rewarding aesthetic exercise and one I recommend for anyone tired of seeing every classical theatre company run Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet into the ground.

For Apollo’s sake, it’s the Bard!  It’s never so much the story (which, in this case, Shakespeare lifted from a silly 16th-century popular romance) as it is the language and the psychology.

At one point, King Leontes shatters the fourth wall and proclaims to the audience, “It’s a bawdy planet!”  Indeed, A Winter’s Tale is filled with hilarious dirty jokes and innuendos; this same monarch speaks of the “dungy earth” and his “hobbyhorse, slippery wife,” yet later blasts the audience in the aforementioned final scene with this line of poetic dynamite:  “What fine chisel could ever yet cut breath?”

Amongst the acting highlights is the complex, redemptive arc of King Leontes played with tragicomic authenticity by veteran stage and television actor Donald Sage Mackay.  There are moments when Mackay plays Leontes as an hilarious medieval George Costanza and other times when the full shroud of Shakespearean darkness consumes his visage.

Other player standouts include guest actor Charles Whetzel and USC MFA student Jake Mesches as Sanford and Son, adopt-a-changeling shepherds.  Also, MFA student Ryan Krause is puckishly diverting and nimble as the pickpocket Autolycus.  And guest actor and USC Sumter scholar Park Bucker continues his meteoric rise in the Columbia theatre community, channeling the comedic spirit of Elliott Gould as the whipped, bear snack courtier, Antigonus.

The brilliance of USC MFA student April Brown’s costume design did not occur to me until midway through the second act, when I realized that 1960s Gene Rodenberry otherworld fantasy garb is the only way to clothe these timeless, Greek-named characters.  Also worth applauding is USC theater senior William Shuler, who originally scored some of the production’s music.  Shuler has contributed musically to many local productions the past several years, and I strongly encourage readers to attend his senior piano recital on Thursday, April 22 at 4 p.m. at the USC School of Music.

Only a coxcomb would neglect to attend USC’s Drayton Hall Theatre in the coming days.  Pull out your iPad and with “paddling paws and pinching fingers” make your reservations for A Winter’s Tale now!

A Winter’s Tale runs April 16 through 25 at USC Drayton Hall Theatre.  The curtain rises at 8 p.m. for all shows except for Saturday performances, which take place at 7 p.m. (and 11 p.m. on April 17).  Also, there is a 3 p.m. matinee on April 25.  Tickets are $10 for students; $14 for university faculty, staff and military personnel; and $16 for the general public.  Call 777.2551 for ticket information.  To learn more about USC theatre, visit www.cas.sc.edu/thea/.

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