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The Winter’s Tale

Cambridge University American Stage Tour

Sept. 18–20, 2007

Kresge Little Theatre

Last week, the Cambridge University American Stage Tour returned to MIT to perform William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. CAST, comprised of Cambridge University students, tour the east coast of the United States during the month of September, performing a work of Shakespeare at a school, charity, community theater, and various universities. In addition, CAST holds workshops over the course of their trip. This year, CAST performed at MIT for three nights in Kresge Little Theatre.

The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s most confusing works. While most of his plays are clearly either a tragedy or a comedy, this one is a mixture of both. The first half of the play follows the structure of a typical tragedy, while the latter half is very much a comedy.

Like the genre, the plot of the play is also rather complicated. It begins with King Leonetes (played by Ed Martineau) who tries to convince his friend King Polixenes (Tim Checkley) to stay for a longer visit, but Polixenes is determined to return to his kingdom. Leonetes then asks his pregnant wife, Hermione (Molly Goyer Gorman) to convince Polixenes to stay, which she does with very little effort. When Leonetes learns how easily Hermione convinced Polixenes, Leonetes assumes Hermione and Leonetes are having an affair and that Hermione’s unborn child is in fact Polixenes’. Leonetes confronts Hermione and tries her for adultery after she has given birth to baby girl Perdita (Rose Mclaren) who is sent away. During the trial, Leonetes and Hermione’s son Antigonus (Owen Holland) dies from the stress, which leads to (what they believe at the time to be) Hermione’s death. Leonetes suddenly has a change of heart and realizes that his wife was innocent and that he is responsible for her death as well as their son’s.

At this point, the play fast forwards 16 years and switches from a tragedy to a comedy. We now see Perdita as a beautiful young woman who was found and raised by a mad hatter (Ed Martineau). Perdita is in love with Florizel (Jess Crawford), Polixenes’, son but does not think she can marry him because she is a mere shepherd’s daughter. Luckily, Leonetes discovers Perdita, convinces Polixenes of her birth, and the two offspring marry. At this time the characters learn that Hermione did not actually die, and they all live happily ever after.

I had never read The Winter’s Tale before seeing this performance, and had I not read a brief plot synopsis beforehand, I probably would have been quite confused. As it was, I had difficulty keeping the characters straight, primarily because many of the actors played multiple parts and played characters of different genders. In addition — and I cannot hold this against them — they spoke not only the original Shakespeare dialogue but with their natural British accents as well. Between the two, particularly the former, I found myself straining to understand many of the lines.

Furthermore, because this was a traveling show, with sets that had to be sent over from England, there was no background scenery and the props were limited to a few chairs, a table, and puppet characters. All of these elements made the story rather difficult to follow.

Luckily, the actors were impressive in their professionalism and performance. That they could memorize all of the dialogue for multiple parts was a feat in itself. They all projected their voices and emotions well. Tim Checkley, who played both Leonetes and the mad hatter, was a bit over the top with wide eyes and strong facial expressions, but he certainly made his sentiments clear in a non-verbal manner. The other actors were more subtle in their characterizations, and they almost made me forget that they were actors and students.

Overall, I enjoyed the play and certainly appreciated the skill these actors exhibited. I wish they had chosen a less complex play or used more props to help the audience understand the plot, but I would certainly see the CAST ensemble again next year when they return with another work of Shakespeare.