"A sad tale's best for winter," a young prince avers in The Winter's Tale. This St. Louis Shakespeare production is sad all right, though perhaps not in the ways that its author intended.
As staged here, the infrequently seen Winter's Tale wears the masks of both tragedy and comedy with equal unease. Remember Stanley Donen's Movie Movie, which served up two short lampoons, first of a 1930s gangster drama, then of a Busby Berkeley musical? That's the kind of disparate double bill we get here, only not so short. The first half offers a court drama of insane jealousy reminiscent of Othello. Then the action leaps forward sixteen years, introduces a fresh cast of characters and becomes a festive celebration of the rustic life in the mode of As You Like It. Such a hybrid evening is a curiosity, to put it mildly.
Speaking of curiosities, surely this is the only play for which Will wrote that vivid stage direction, "Exit, pursued by a bear." You don't see that in Hamlet. But most of this dialogue is not as easy to decipher as that line. Even the genial Mark Van Doren, who taught Shakespeare at Columbia University for nearly four decades, warned that The Winter's Tale is "complicated beyond comfort" and includes "the obscurest passage in Shakespeare." If scholars can't follow what's being said, what chance do we ignorant groundlings have?
Nobody expects to follow every single line of Shakespeare. But even if you don't always understand what's being said, you deserve to know what's going on. Yet this Winter's Tale doesn't know how to tell its tale; it's a rudderless rendition that from beginning to end ignores the viewers' needs with an almost studied disdain. We get adults who speak too softly ("I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Shakespeare") and children who are allowed to deliver their lines while facing upstage. Then, even as they're struggling with iambic pentameter, unnecessary background music begins to play, forcing the audience to strain even harder to hear.
At the top of Act Two, a charming child in the chorus-like role of Time asks for the viewer's "patience" as she delivers the transitional exposition that advances the story a generation. Patience is required, because her voice does not carry beyond the third row. Yet this is critical information if we're to know what's happening in the second half of the play.
The Winter's Tale is a study in contrasts -- between maturity and youth, cruelty and kindness, distrust and faith. But in this mounting the most immediate contrast is between murkiness and clarity. Most of the Act One storyline, which concerns the insane jealousy of King Leontes, is simply lost. But if that act might be labeled "Leontes' Despair," Act Two is most aptly described as "The Charlie Barron Show." Barron's character, a carefree rogue who is incidental to the forward action, should not be dominating the evening. But when you fill a vacuum, you run the risk of throwing things out of whack. When the energetic, appealing Barron is onstage, the main plot takes a back seat to his shenanigans. Even more important for the viewer, Barron makes sense. We can follow what he's saying. God bless lucid clowns.
There may be those among you -- and you know who you are; you're the same folks who think you have to visit Bismarck, North Dakota, just so you can say you've seen every state capital -- who need to check The Winter's Tale off your Shakespeare life list. You have been warned. But if you remain obdurate, don't waste your time reading the play in advance. If you really want to get the most out of what's going on here, borrow a page from those who actually enjoyed 2001: A Space Odyssey and attend The Winter's Tale stoned. It could only help.