Yale Rep's THE WINTER'S TALE is cold and bold
Round #2 of the Shakespearean Smackdown! Turns out UConn's Connecticut Repertory Theatre and Yale Repertory Theatre are producing one of the Bard's lesser works, The Winter's Tale, simultaneously. In order for ardent fans of Shakespeare and neophytes to know where their money and time would be best spent, I checked them both out for you.
As the curtain parted at Yale Rep's University Theatre, I was mesmerized. This was partially because the set by Michael Yeargan managed to be both spartan and elegant with a crystal chandelier, towering black and white sliding partitions, and a sleek black floor. The other reason I was mesmerized is that much of the look and feel of the early scenes in the Yale Rep production were similar to CRT's production: a child coming out to the front of the stage to play with a toy, rear sliders opening to frame figures, among other coincidences.
Granted, Yale Rep has a much larger budget than CRT's student studio production. This allows Yale to have all the advantageous bells and whistles of a professional Equity cast, a more flexible set, exquisite costumes (mainly early-20th century in the first act and Eurasian ethnic garb in the second act), and a live musical ensemble onstage.
The first half of the Yale Rep Winter's Tale lives up to the title's sangfroid. It is cold, stark and forbidding in King Leontes' Sicilia. Rather than choosing to play the king as a mere tyrant, actor Rob Campbell and director Liz Diamond mine the psychological darkness of the character, making him borderline insane. This gives Leontes a bit of a loopy, thrilling edge. Unfortunately, it makes his second-act transformation to a cardigan-wearing softy feel a bit far-fetched.
The challenge of The Winter's Tale lies in matching the martial side of Act 1 with the merry side of Act 2. My impression of the CRT production was that the two halves were ill-fitting. The first part of the second act clowning is revealed at the end of Act 1 with the old shepherd's discovery of Leontes' abandoned daughter Perdita. CRT amped up the yucks in this sequence, making for a jarring dissonance. Yale Rep's production seemed assured to solve the problem by dialing down the goofiness of the Act 1 epilogue and ending with a lovely tableau of Time introducing young lovers spinning in a shower of flower petals.
Much like the second act of the CRT Winter's Tale, Yale's production ratchets up the Act 2 frivolity (of course, on a much larger budget). The roguish Autolycus, played by Luke Robertson, swaggers on like Captain Jack Sparrow wearing sunglasses, hips thrusting, snapping commands at the onstage band like James Brown. All of a sudden, the first act's artfully created tension dissipates and, again, the second act ill suits the first act. It's like we've left the Death Star and ended up in the cuteness overload of the Ewok village. The problem comes in both productions with making Sicilia a black-and-white monolith and Bohemia like a riotous Haight-Ashbury. When the two halves, by necessity, come together at the end, it doesn't quite gel.
In all other regards, Diamond's choices are masterful. The cast is, by and large, excellent (Mr. Robertson's bizarre performance notwithstanding). The design is nigh on flawless and the original compositions by Matthew Suttor are bewitching. Indeed, during the first act, I thought I was witnessing that elusive, rare beast: an exemplary, restrained production of Shakespeare. Most companies over-conceive, over-shoot or over-sell when attempting to prove their bona fides with the Bard. Ms. Diamond and Yale Rep get as close as I have been in quite some time.
As for the Smackdown, advantage goes to Yale, but CRT is proving to be a contender. See both and decide for yourself.