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Acheim concentrates on time in The Winter's Tale


Written by William Shakespeare.

Directed by Skip Ascheim.

Presented by the Boston Theatre Project.

At the Brattle Theatre, Feb. 21 to Mar. 11.


DIRECTOR SKIP ASCHEIM decided on three rather unusual notions for the Boston Theatre Project's production of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Ascheim explains in a program note that he views "time, Apollo and `great creating nature' " as providing the context in which the play is set. "Time" is surely as relevant to The Winter's Tale as the porter and alcohol are in Macbeth. However, the play succeeded very well in maintaining unity even with such a forced theme.

Ascheim's other avowed view of the play was "as an allegory of healing," and so he set his focus firmly on the later scenes which lead up to the reconciliation of the two kings, Leontes of Sicilia (Jeremiah Kissel) and Polixenes of Bohemia (Christopher Coucill). Consequently the earlier scenes in Sicilia, the realm of King Leontes, were a little unnatural.

The time theme was evident from John R. Malinowski's set, which consisted of a broad oval opening at the top of two or three steps, around which was a clock-dial. While this was puzzling for most of the play, the time motif had a pleasing justification in the final scene of the performance, where the opening became a display case for the statue of Leontes' Queen Hermione. The set also allowed some very effective silhouette stage pictures.

Overall, the most consistently satisfying performances came from James Walker (who played the Old Shepherd and Antigonus, a lord in Leontes' court), from Geraldine Librandi (who played Paulina, wife and widow of Antigonus), and from Jonathan Epstine (as Camillo, a lord of Leontes' court).

The costuming was well done by Elissa Della-Piana, although once again it was better in the second part of the program (with Bohemian court costumes and rural Bohemian costumes) than in the first (in the Sicilian court and briefly in the Bohemian wilderness). Polixenes' heavy, fur-edged cloak showed some signs of slipping during some earlier scenes, and may have distracted Coucill early on. The awful green costumes, which the Old Shepherd and his son wore after again making their fortune at the end of the play, were triumphs in bawdy poor taste.

Naturally, no account of costumes would be complete without mentioning the bear. I don't know how Ascheim thought the bear fit into his idea of "great creating nature," especially as it managed to devour Antigonus. I also don't know why the time-passage scene at the beginning of the second half had to start with the bear ambling on, and then shedding its costume to become the character Time. Cynics might suggest that this was to make the most of an expensive bear costume. Whatever the reason, it was a gimmicky distraction. The character of Time appeared with frizzy white hair, looking like a white, blond version of Bob Marley. Subsequently Time (John Davin) transformed into the persona of the swaggering Autolycus, a rogue. Davin exuded too much healthy well-being to be a convincing Autolycus.

As Leontes, Kissel had the appearance of a Mongolian overlord of the Middle Ages, a domineering physical character. In the early scenes the physical nature of Leontes, which later would to show itself as his jealous aggressive anger, was a nice and appropriate touch. After Leontes' first pangs of jealousy, Kissel started to deliver his lines with a sprinkling of sardonic humor. Unfortunately, this sometimes distracted from what ought to have been quite serious moments.

As Leontes' unfounded suspicions grew about his pregnant wife, he anxiously played with a handkerchief, rolling it in his palm. This device would have been more effective if Kissel had not at one point given the impression of beginning to eat the handkerchief.

As the news of the queen's innocence arrived from Apollo's oracle at Delphos, Leontes broke down, and with the news of his son's death, Leontes fell the ground by his throne. The bitter reprimand of Paulina left Kissel nothing to do but to crawl (rather awkwardly) down the steps weeping. He was down-stage, prostrate and weeping, and then came the report that Leontes' wife was dead. Kissel's options as an actor were exhausted. The whole effect was, at the very least, unkingly.

The aging of the Sicilian court between the first and second halves of the play was well done, and Kissel seemed much more at home in the role of the older, broken, reflective monarch.

Francis West played Leontes' queen, Hermione, who is falsely accused of unfaithfulness, with just enough playfulness for both the king's jealousy and her actual faithfulness to seem plausible. In the scene where she must defend herself against the accusations of the king, West played Hermione with the touching dignity she deserved and in stark contrast to the extremes to which Leontes' reaction was carried.

Coucill's voice, at moments reminiscent of Vincent Price, gave the cloaked, disguised Polixenes a dash of menace. The scene where Polixenes confronts his son about to elope was more successful than any of Leontes' scenes in the first half of the program.

A charming Perdita (lost daughter of Leontes and Hermione) was played by Dee Nelson, and Floritzel (not lost son of Polixenes) was played by Brent Blair. Together they made a convincing pair of starry-eyed lovers. Andrew Borthwick-Leslie played a wonderful shepherd's son and clown, lightening the mood of each scene he was in.

The handling of sound by Chris Janssen was adequate, although music cut in and out much too abruptly at points. Background music was well chosen. The dance music for the Bohemian rural festival seemed vaguely Turkish, as did most of the dancing along with it.

While Ascheim's perception of the play probably provided as many distractions from the plot and characters as it did illuminations for them, he did manage to create a watchable, enjoyable show, without resorting to major reinterpretation.