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The Winter’s Tale

A Cold Tale

By Bence P. Olveczky

Staff Writer

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Slobodan Unkovski

Set design by Meta Hocevar

With Henry Woronicz, John Douglas Thompson, Mirjana Jokovic, Jovan Rameau, Oliver Poole, Remo Airaldi, and Thomas Derrah

American Repertory Theatre

Loeb Drama Center

64 Brattle Street

Until June 11 at the Loeb Drama Center on 64 Brattle Street.

Tickets are $24-$57. Student rush tickets, $15, are available 30 minutes before the performance.

Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is a tragicomedy about the clash and reconciliation between two different worlds -- the bleak and stern Sicilia and the generous and Epicurean Bohemia. But while Shakespeare’s play shows the redeeming qualities of cross-cultural interactions, A.R.T’s production is a testimony to the opposite: how artists of different origins fail to connect.

After Romanian maven Andrei Serban’s recent successes with The Merchant of Venice and Taming of the Shrew, A.R.T once again summoned a creative team from the Balkans for its annual Shakespeare staging. But accomplished Macedonian director Slobodan Unkovski and Slovenian set designer Meta Hocevar fail to ignite the Cambridge audience the way Serban did. The production lacks a consistent theme, raising the suspicion that the Balkan “dream team” got stuck in the cultural gap that clearly divides them from the actors. The A.R.T ensemble is trying its best, but the performances often fail to serve Unkovski’s ideas. The result is a show lacking in cohesion.

The play starts in Sicilia which, in A.R.T’s production, is a cold and alienating land. Sicilia’s citizens are filled with angst and subdued neuroticism, À la August Strindberg and Henrik Ibsen. The King of Bohemia, Polixenes (John Douglas Thompson), is bidding farewell after visiting his childhood friend, the Sicilian king Leontes (Henry Woronicz). However, Leontes’ wife, Hermione (Mirjana Jokovic), begs him to stay. When Polixenes agrees to delay his departure, Leontes goes into a jealous rage that results in the death of his son, Mamillius (Oliver Poole). Henry Woronicz diligently displays Leontes’ psychological torment, but the tensions leading up to the tragedy are never felt, only implied.

In the first act, the stage is confined by large black walls with a sliding door letting in varying amounts of light. Meta Hocevar’s design is a poor-man’s Bob Wilson set, lacking the aesthetic quality of the American theater guru’s minimalist designs, though keeping with his geometrical program.

Fortunately things turn around after the intermission when the attention focuses on Bohemia. Polixenes, after having escaped an assassination attempt by the enraged Leontes, returns home to his festive homeland. Unkovski and Hocevar have made Bohemia into a fantastic land reminiscent of the tales of Arabian Nights, complete with belly dancers and dark-skinned beauties. In stark contrast to Sicilia, the stage is an explosion of pastel color, looking like a combination between a Gaugin painting and Barbieland.

The Bohemian revelry gives ample room for A.R.T’s trademark slapstick. Remo Airaldi, as The Clown, and Thomas Derrah, as the ragtag rogue Autolycus, are particularly amusing to watch. The attention of the audience that may have swayed a little in the first half of the production, is here firmly captured by the comedians.

The finale, a reconciliation between the regretful Leontes and the forgiving Polixenes, bring the worlds of Bohemia and Sicilia together in a symbiotic reunion. It’s a beautiful ending, but it also exposes the weakness of the preceding three hours, reminding us of the missed opportunities. This could have been a engrossing production about jealousy, regret, and redemption. Instead it’s an inconsistent and fragmented production that -- albeit entertaining in parts -- fails to do justice to Shakespeare’s play.

It’s a shame, because there is so much talent assembled, particularly Mirjana Jokovic who plays Hermione. In her native Yugoslavia, Jokovic is a true film star, and her captivating performances in Emir Kusturica’s acclaimed Underground, Goran Paskeljevic’s Cabaret Balkan has made her one of European cinema’s leading ladies. It is clear that her dramatic talents are wasted in this production. A.R.T director Robert Brustein’s efforts to bring Eastern- European actors and directors to the U.S. and vice versa are laudable indeed, and it is a brave and risky undertaking.