If you’ve been laboring under the notion that The Winter’s Tale is about Leontes—the Sicilian king whose mad jealousy destroys his marriage, his family, and his kingdom—director Arin Arbus and Theatre for a New Audience have news for you: The Winter’s Tale is about Paulina. Fearless, truth-telling, proto-feminist Paulina, who can charm guards, shame kings, and bring statues to life. Oh, and a bear. The Winter’s Tale is also about a bear.
Shakespeare’s schizophrenic late play—which swings almost haphazardly among tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale—has always had an identity problem: It starts in court in Sicilia, then shifts to the wilds of Bohemia, and navigates a 16-year time change with a clunky monologue by a character called Time. (Not the Bard’s most subtle bit of stagecraft.) There’s also an infamous bear-chasing scene, as prescribed by perhaps the best-known stage direction in theatrical history, “Exit, pursed by a bear.”
Arbus and TFANA’s take on the genre-bending Tale is more tragic than comic, giving heavy weight to the quick and downward spiral of King Leontes (Anatol Yusef, appropriately infuriating); the false accusations against the pregnant queen, Hermione (Kelley Curran, graceful and poised), whom Leontes calls an “adulterer,” “hobby horse,” and “bed-swerver”; and the passionate, ultimately futile, pleas for reason by Paulina (a pitch-perfect Mahira Kakkar). Have the lords always been so dismissive of the outspoken noblewoman? “What fit is this?” one asks. “Say no more!” chides another. But Paulina will not be silenced: “I am sorry! … Alas, I have showed too much the rashness of a woman!” Side note: TFANA should really consider selling #TeamPaulina T-shirts.
Aside from the antics of pickpocket/peddler/all-around rogue Autolycus (played by the exceptional Arnie Burton, who also doubles as the Bear), the pastoral elements of the play grow a bit tiresome. One can only take so much of Perdita (Nicole Rodenburg) waxing poetic about wildflowers. Thankfully, soon enough, you’re jolted back to Sicilia and into the capable hands of Paulina, who’s about to make some magic happen and anthropomorphize a Hermione statue. For her inexhaustible efforts, Leontes magnanimously rewards her with a husband. Poor clueless Leontes. He should have just given her a T-shirt.
The Winter’s Tale opened March 25, 2018, at Polonsky Shakespeare Center and runs through April 15. Tickets and information: tfana.org