When a local company presents a classic or canonical play, we must ask, "Why now?"—and it's quite satisfying when, during a few blissful hours in an audience seat (or bench, in this case), that question is clearly and resoundingly answered. Expectedly, the Oasis Theatre Company once again delivers.
Oasis presents The Winter's Tale this month, first performed nearly 408 years ago. While it's one of Shakespeare's lesser-produced works, in director Brenda Lynn Bynum's capable hands, it is unclear why it isn't more popular, especially now: Toxic masculinity, jealousy, odd coincidences, humor, the insane actions of a blind oligarch and the best example of Deus Ex Machina around make it not only a captivating tale, but brings to light the unfortunately eternal relevancy of the bullshit that humans have pulled since Elizabethan times—and will continue to pull forever. We will never learn. (Plus, it contains every theater nerd's favorite stage direction ever: "Exit, pursued by a bear.")
The action, originally set in Sicily a few centuries ago, is ushered forward to Chicago's Little Sicily in 1955, at the height of finger-pointing McCarthyism. When the setting zips ahead 16 years and across a "sea" at intermission, we're brought to 1970 in the fictional hippie hamlet of Bohemia, Michigan (and, yes, historic Bohemia had no sea coast, but there's a whole branch of scholarly thought as to why the Bard chose a nonexistent coastline as a setting).
In discussing this change of temporal venue with Bynum back in September, she noted how the 16 years between, say, 1570 and 1586 may seem inconsequential to us now—but consider how much America changed between 1955 and 1970, and it becomes clear what 16 years really means.
The show opens on a grand New Year's Eve party held by King Leontes (Vaughn Irving) and his heavily pregnant wife Hermione (a perfectly poised Sarah Runyan). Leontes' childhood friend Polixenes (Alexander Shicoff), now the King of Bohemia, is also in attendance. As tends to happen when spouses settle into each other's lives, Polixenes and Hermione have also become friends.
As they chat, Leontes watches from an elevated throne (a super-mod leather chair on a chic black and white set; another spatial triumph for Oasis), and later tells the audience in soliloquy that he suspects Hermione and Polixenes are a little too friendly. He quickly decides that Hermione's unborn baby is not his, but indeed Polixenes'. He freaks out and calls on his advisor Camillo (Steven Oakey) to throw Hermione in jail for adultery. Yikes—that escalated quickly.
With Irving's portrayal of the king driven mad with jealousy next to Runyan's clear, measured delivery, we get a look at the hideous reality of so much intimate partner violence: He is not frothing at the mouth or visibly tyrannical, but rather reasonably convinced his insane ideas are truth, and uses his power as a man (and, in this case, a literal king) in a patriarchy to have his crazy whims executed. Runyan, meanwhile, never flashes fear, never raises her voice—what an unnerving and all-too-real example of how so many abused women deal with their partners' rages: with unwavering calm in the face of baseless accusations. While her stakes sometimes felt a bit low, mostly Runyan delivers the goods with ease. It's a treat from the actress who has heretofore in Santa Fe mostly reigned from the stage manager's seat.
In prison, accompanied by her ladies-in-waiting (Joey Beth Gilbert and Eibhlin Brennan, both of whom nicely straddle the line between having distinct characters and stealing the scene, a feat for ensemble players—and whose chic costumes deserve a nod too), Hermione gives birth to a baby girl. Kathi Collins, playing Paulina, is just the fierce little old lady this play needs: She swoops into the jail, takes the baby in a basket and fearlessly presents her to Leontes, hoping the sight of his daughter will soften the king.
Spoiler alert: It doesn't. Leontes orders the baby killed. Antigonus (Yannig Morin), husband of the wily Paulina, chisels away at him, and eventually Leontes instead banishes the baby. "Carry this female bastard hence and … bear it to some remote and desert place quite out of our dominions," he tells Antigonus, "and … leave it, without more mercy, to its own protection and favour of the climate." Nice guy, huh?
Long story short, the baby gets found by a Bohemian shepherdess, also portrayed by the ever-capable Collins. The largely black-and-white (with pops of red) first act explodes in act two, when we get to frolic among the flower children in their hippie hideaway. A benefit of such a small theater is that we get an olfactory experience too; Zoe Burke portrays the now-16-year-old former baby, Perdita, and each time she flitted onstage, the scent of flowers filled the air. She coincidentally has met Florizel (Noah Segard), son of Polixenes, and has fallen in love. Fancy that! (You can tell now that the show is headed for a saccharine ending after all.)
The second act, despite its happier tone and colorful costumes, is less engaging than the first. The intrigue has cooled, so we're left with a lot of conversation that occasionally sags between high points. And then of course, there's the end; it's silly. It's a bit eye-roll-inducing. But whatever, it's sweet. Enjoy it, and don't be cynical.
The best part of act two may have been Morin's Autolycus; "a Rogue," says the script. For the 1970s version of the traveling Elizabethan vagabond thief/peddler, Autolycus is a hippie caricature complete with a harmonica and sunglasses and a decidedly Bob Dylan-style wheeze. Sounds stupid in theory, is hilarious in practice. The audience loved him, and Shakespeare's occasional addresses to "man" become a drawn-out "maaaaan" in Morin's portrayal, never failing to get laughs from the crowd.
There's a lot more I'd love to say, but indeed I've run out of words. Every time I walk into a canonical work, I wonder what more a theater company can do that hasn't been done, what more I can say that hasn't been said. Not sure why I keep wondering; Santa Fe, and particularly Oasis, always shows me, and then some.
The Winter's Tale
7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays Feb. 7-16; 2 pm Sundays Feb. 10 and 17. $25. The Oasis Theatre, 3205 Calle Marie, 917-439-7708