Review: Shakespeare runs an experiment in ‘The Winter’s Tale’ at A Noise Within
Shakespeare was an enthusiastic experimenter, but he was also compelled to satisfy audience — and royal — tastes. Some combination of the two appears to have driven his late-career tinkering with genres, combining tragedy with its seeming opposite, pastoral comedy, in a form that became classified as romance.
These plays — which include “Pericles” and “Cymbeline” — seem startling even today. Perplexing too, because they are built of abrupt plot twists and tonal shifts.
The classical repertory company A Noise Within is gamely grappling with “The Winter’s Tale.” The result, while wholly admirable, reflects the pitfalls as well as the triumphs of broaching the romances.
Dated 1610-11, “The Winter’s Tale” starts out like “Othello,” with a paranoid king suspecting his wife of infidelity.
As staged by A Noise Within co-leader Geoff Elliott, the story unfolds in what appears to be a fascist country in the 1930s. The heart of government is a menacing, Modernist fortress in midnight black. King Leontes (Frederick Stuart) and his advisors wear military uniforms and jackboots.
A high-spirited party turns volatile when the king assigns an innocent bit of hospitality to his radiantly pregnant wife, Hermione (Trisha Miller), then misconstrues the way his lifelong pal, Polixenes (Brian Ibsen), responds. Soon, Leontes is spitting words like “treason” while his subordinates, aghast, do their best to subvert his vicious orders.
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About two-thirds of the way through, the story flips to the countryside and a gentle comedy about young love. The sweethearts — a prince and a shepherdess who is really a princess — adore each other with a purity that’s sorely lacking in their wider world.
The two parts seem like different plays, but Elliott homes in on their connecting logic, trimming the text for focus and flow. Momentum slows occasionally, and performances sometimes turn leaden, but overall, Elliott is well served by his cast of 15 and by his designers (Frederica Nascimento, sets; Ken Booth, lights; and Garry Lennon, costumes).
The audience thoroughly enjoys Deborah Strang as the outspoken wife of one of Leontes’ counselors, wielding words like knives and swatting away anyone who dares to contradict her. As the young lovers, Alexander De Vasconcelos Matos and Angela Gulner are a Pre-Raphaelite painting come to life.
Then there are the bears. One roars out of a storm to interrupt a nefarious act (oh, that Shakespeare), the other is a costumed little prince — played by Jayce Evans — who becomes the story’s guardian angel (a particularly nice Elliott touch).
Across the ages, one experimenter collaborates with another.
'The Winter's Tale'
Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena
When: In repertory (schedule varies) through April 11
Tickets: $20-$93 (subject to change)
Info: (626) 356-3121, anoisewithin.org
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
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