A Tale Best For Winter

A Tale Best For Winter

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The Old Globe Theatre brings the Bard’s comedy to life in a glittering, modern-day performance of love and jealousy

It might be a good thing that William Shakespeare can’t time travel and see some of the more recent adaptations of his beloved plays. He might bite his thumb at Baz Luhrmann for that opening gunfight scene in 1996’s “Romeo + Juliet” — that is, after the Bard figures out what a gas station is. And he may be skeptical whether “All the world’s a stage” includes 19th century Japan, as Kenneth Branagh seems to think it does in 2006’s “As You Like It.”

But if the world’s most celebrated playwright visited the Old Globe Theatre — a venue architecturally based on London’s Globe Theatre, where many of his works premiered — and saw Barry Edelstein’s rendition of “The Winter’s Tale,” our intrepid Elizabethan time traveller would be more than pleased, even with its modern setting and garb. Balboa Park’s latest offering is a must-see for Shakespeare enthusiasts of every hue on the purist spectrum.

Though not as revered as “Hamlet” or “Macbeth,” “Tale” is still an enchanting classic of envy, rediscovered love and the importance of family. The brash king of Sicily, Leontes (Billy Campbell, SyFy’s “Helix”), mistakenly assumes that his faithful wife Hermione (Natacha Roi) is having an affair with his childhood friend Polixenes, the king of Bohemia (Paul Michael Valley), after he observes how well the two get along. Jumping to conclusions, Leontes convinces himself that the pregnant Hermione bears Polixenes’s child, ultimately arresting his wife for adultery and sending the infant, Perdita, away to Bohemia after its birth. Hermione (whom, yes, is the namesake of a certain J.K. Rowling character) dies soon after, leaving Leontes distraught and alone.

The first half of “Tale” is much like your standard Shakespeare play, though Leontes and Polixenes don well-cut suits and bow ties rather than doublets and jerkins. Scenes smoothly transition from one to the next with innovative lighting and sets that evoke the splendor of Leontes’s Sicilian palace. But the production, overall, sometimes feels more like a quirky indie comedy, with spurts of minimalism owing to the soundtrack played live onstage by one pianist. In one scene, Leontes delivers a fevered monologue — complete with minor keys and discordant tunes from the lone piano — in his young son’s playroom while he contemplates Hermione’s possible infidelity; as his attendants stand by, the Sicilian king distractedly plays with a jack-in-the-box, adding to the subtly eccentric yet playful tone.

Even the second half of the play, which takes place 16 years after Perdita’s abandonment, seems more like an indie remake of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” than a prim Shakespearean adaptation: The setting switches to a whimsical Bohemian forest with a strong Midwestern flavor inhabited by a down-to-earth, excessively blithe cast, including Perdita (Maya Kazan, “Frances Ha”) and her adoptive family, a kindly old shepherd (Mark Nelson) and his offbeat son Clown (Brendan Spieth).
This kind of interpretation does not take away from the source material or detract from the play’s quality — if anything, a new dimension is added and improves upon what Shakespeare originally penned. Particularly in Bohemia, where shepherds and farmers freely frolic about like the fairies in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the audience lives the peasant experience. In fact, there are several instances when characters seem to break the fourth wall: We become the jurors of Hermione’s trial or are asked to sing along to the Bohemians catchy musical numbers.

Of course, this was pulled off flawlessly in part because of the strength of the leads and supporting actors. Golden Globe nominee Campbell reveals a deeply flawed ruler in Leontes, yet one who is so charismatic that we understand why more likeable characters such as Hermione and Polixenes put up with him before he foolishly gives in to impulsive actions that drive the plot. But the standout performance of “Tale” comes in Angel Desai’s portrayal of Hermione’s best friend, Paulina. Here, we’re presented with one of Shakespeare’s strongest — and perhaps most overlooked — female characters. With her feistiness and cunning, Paulina outmaneuvers the whole Sicilian court, Leontes included. Put this woman in a room with “The Taming of the Shrew”’s and “Much Ado About Nothing”’s outspoken heroines, and we’ll see Katherina Minola and Beatrice leave shaking and sobbing before Paulina is finished ranting.

Characters like Paulina make us realize just how progressive and modern Shakespeare was to craft such a powerful woman at a time that still saw females as inferior. It then becomes understandable why Shakespeareans love to marry his verses in iambic pentameter — replete with archaic words — to a modern setting. The Bard would never understand our world of hashtags and chat abbreviations, just as we struggle to get what he really meant by “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” But plays like Edelstein’s “The Winter’s Tale” remind us that that’s okay — we just have to open our minds up again to the original, and we can do so with ease. Toward the end of the play, the wily Autolycus (Paul Kandel) says, “Age, thou hast lost thy labor” — and that couldn’t be more applicable to Shakespeare’s plays. The Bard will never get old, especially with adaptations like Edelstein’s that honor the past and still manage to appeal to the present.

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