Presented by Maiden Phoenix Theatre Company
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Sarah Gazdowicz
Review by Gillian Daniels
(Somerville, MA) Maiden Phoenix gamely takes on one of the strangest of Shakespeare’s late period work. In the style of King Lear, Leontes (Juliet Bowler) comes to distrust his loved ones to the horror of his court. His queen, Hermione (Cassandra Meyer), is accused of adultery, their son, Mamillius (a hilariously bro-y Caroline Rose Markham), is separated from his mother, and a baby is abandoned on a hillside to be devoured by the wild. Then, suddenly, when a man “exits” the stage pursued by bears, the story transforms. The Winter’s Tale leaves aside its devastating tragedy and the king’s “too hot, too hot” anger in favor of a pastoral comedy. From this point on, the story flows together like a series of dreams. This peculiar shift suits not only more optimistic fare but the theatre group’s choice of setting, a green, fairy tale-like staging in Nathan Tufts Park.
Supporting its mission statement, Maiden Phoenix’s presents an all-women production. This gender flip suits the play’s climactic reveal perfectly. The play is a tragedy when its action is manipulated by uncaring men and a story of triumph when the female characters take the reigns.
There’s not a single weak link in the chain. April Singley is particularly deft as both the terrified Antigonus, useless to stop Leontes from the grave mistakes of his burning jealousy, and the confident but marvelously naive Shepherd who decides to raise the abandoned Perdita (Leilani Ricardo) on the belief she has been left by fairies in Bohemia.
The Old Powder House, a windmill in 1703 (or perhaps 1704) and a gunpowder magazine in 1747, represents Sicilia. The Bard and American history are certainly on familiar terms. His plays were read in collections owned by colonists and the first recorded performance of a Shakespeare play on this continent (an amateur production of Romeo and Juliet in New York City) was in 1730. American flag waving from the top or not, the Old Powder House functions as an excellent stand-in for Leontes’ kingdom and his pride.
The psychological drama of the first three acts hinges on our belief in Bowler’s performance as a king blinded by paranoia, an inarticulate rage delivered in a dry, clipped voice. But Meyer’s Hermione is cordial rather than flirtatious with rival monarch, Polixenes (Kamela Dolinova), and this production stresses not only her innocence but the blamelessness of everyone but Leontes. His actions are motivated outside of logic but somehow not punished with a bloody, ironic justice seen in King Lear or Titus Andronicus. It’s not surprising that Shakespeare adapted the play from Pandasto: The Triumph of Time, a darker source. There, a much more tragic ending awaits the king, one where he inadvertently lusts after his adult daughter and commits suicide after her identity is revealed to him. The outline of incest remains as Markham plays not only Perdita’s brother but her eventual suitor, Florizel, but by then, the play has transformed from a family melodrama to a fantasia.
No, the ending of A Winter’s Tale is much sweeter and more reminiscent of a masquerade than gloomy reality. Its magical conclusion is staged like a pageant, the cast frozen as living statues in Paulina’s (Gail Shalan’s) unlikely collection. Despite the show’s title, Maiden Phoenix makes the sequence well-suited to a New England summer evening. I can’t imagine a better way to pass the time at dusk.