Stanford Shakes’ ‘The Winter’s Tale’ is Impossibly Outlandishness

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The Winter’s Tale is a weird play, one of Shakespeare’s most tonally haphazard. The first half feels like a classic tragedy, the second more like a comedy. The plot is convoluted, the characters seem unbound by logic, and the whole thing gets wrapped up rather abruptly in the final scene. And you know what? I loved it.

The Stanford Shakespeare Company’s production of The Winter’s Tale, directed by Nora Tjossem (’15), opened last night at the Stanford Wall, a public sculpture by the eminent color theorist and painter Joseph Albers, tucked away in the trees between Littlefield Center and the Oval. It is strange that his one mark on the Stanford campus is so devoid of color, a grey brick edifice studded with shiny metal rods in code-like patterns. It’s futuristic and incongruous as a backdrop behind actors dressed to the nines in their medieval finery, but that dissonance actually works to heighten the absurdity of the play’s predicaments. King Leontes, played by Matthew Libby (’17), falsely accuses his pregnant queen Hermione, played by Hanna Tyson (’17), of adultery. Libby is powerful in the role, managing to make the king’s sudden descent into paranoia and madness feel true and painful, even if we have no sympathy for him. Tyson is even more compelling, achieving that tricky balance of hurt and anger that comes when the person you love most decides to hate you. Leontes sends Hermione to the dungeon, where she gives birth to her child. I was also blown away by Sunny Huang (’14) as Paulina, whose impassioned pleas fail to sway the king toward mercy. Leontes is convinced the baby isn’t his, and tells his right-hand man Antigones (Paulina’s husband) to leave the infant to die in the wilderness. This scene gives us Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction. After depositing the baby on the ground, Antigones, played by Louis McWilliams (’16) gets the honor: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” The bear in question, in a beautifully designed costume by Alexis Lucio (’15), arrives from nowhere, chases Antigones offstage and eats him alive. The moment marks the beginning of the play’s turn in a decidedly more absurdist direction, but not before both Hermione and Leontes’ son Mamillius literally die of sadness.

At this point, in an almost Spongebob-esque moment, three mysterious characters take on the role of Time, or the Fates, or whatever you want to call them, and announce the passing of 16 years. Leontes has been wallowing in mourning, and his daughter, Perdita, played by Melanie Arnold (’16) is alive and well, growing up in the home of a shepherd, played by the comedic genius that is Kevin Hurlbutt (’14). Seriously, this is your last chance to see this man act on campus, and you really must. From this point on, the play sort of explodes into a strange and complex whirl of hidden identities, shirtlessness, elopements, pickpocketing, and family reunions. There are some truly funny scenes along the way, involving the mandolin-playing rogue Autolycus, played by Lora Kelley (’17), as well as the King of Bohemia and the Sicilian defector Camillo, played by Graham Roth (‘12) and Jackie Emerson (’17), both dressed as cantankerous old men. Eventually, after much confusion, and with some quick loose-end-tying on Shakespeare’s part, all are returned to the court of Leontes, all disputes resolved, and young love celebrated between Perdita and the Bohemian Prince Florizel, played by Patrick O’Hare (’17).

The play culminates in an extremely bizarre moment: all the characters gather round an incredibly realistic statue of the late queen Hermione. They comment on how lifelike it is, how exactly it captures the likeness of the dead queen. Suddenly, the sculpture comes to life, and Hermione herself descends from the pedestal to embrace her husband and long-lost daughter. All three leave the stage, two women in the arms of the king who imprisoned and banished them, as if none of it had ever happened. And for some reason, I bought it. I should have been turned off by the crazy cocktail of strangeness, the outright disregard for logic inherent in the play. But this production embraced all of that, all the ridiculousness, all the contradiction, all the incongruity, and in so doing they made it fun, pulled me into that weird world, and made me love the impossible outlandishness of it all.

So I encourage you to go see The Winter’s Tale this weekend, to trek out to that strange wall in that forgotten and surprisingly beautiful copse of trees. It may seem odd to watch Shakespeare outside by a parking lot, to listen to actors occasionally fighting to be heard over the roar of airplanes and car horns (I could have sworn somebody was playing the bagpipes in the Oval during the show), but that oddness is apt, is in fact the only way to do justice to this most bizarre of Shakespeare’s plays. If for nothing else, go for the bear.

The Stanford Shakespeare Company’s The Winter’s Tale opened on Thursday at 8pm at the Stanford Wall, and runs May 22-25. To reserve (FREE) tickets, and for more information, go here.

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