'Winter's Tale' will warm cold nights

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 7, 2007

DAVIDSON — The Royal Shakespeare Company is back for its fourth annual residency at Davidson College. This year, the company is performing two of Shakespeare’s later plays: “The Winter’s Tale” and “Pericles.”

Based in Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon, England, the Royal Shakespeare Company began its relationship with Davidson College in 2002, conducting a residency and performing “The Merchant of Venice.”

It’s a safe bet that most of the opening night audience Tuesday for “The Winter’s Tale” had never experienced anything like it — I certainly hadn’t.

In a two-week project, the theatre department at Davidson covered the Duke Family Performance Hall’s existing stage and the entire orchestra section of regular seating with a specially built raised 60-by-80 foot stage.

“The technical staff here has done an amazing job,” said Maria Aberg, associate director of “The Winter’s Tale” and “Pericles.”

This rarely used staging — which elevates the stage to star status — gives the production great flexibility and enables actors to utilize a large portion of the performance hall.

About 150 audience members hold promenade tickets for each performance, which means they’re on stage among the actors and immersed in an incredibly intimate theatre experience.

As promenade ticket-holders walk into the theatre, they are ushered onto the stage into a New Year’s Eve party — the setting for the play’s first scene. Dressed formally, actors dance with one another and mingle with theatre-goers.

Some of the Davidson students who walked in after I did were confused about where they were to sit until they were informed they’d be remaining on the stage. The promenade audience may move about the stage at will, as long as they don’t impinge on what the actors are doing.

Starting at 7:30 p.m., the play didn’t end until almost 11 p.m., which was quite a long stretch of time for those standing in the promenade section. With no seats on stage, some in the audience began to plop on the floor during soliloquies. After the first few broke the ice, others — like me — gratefully followed suit.

I’m pretty sure some of the promenade audience was wishing they had traditional seating, but most of us, I think, enjoyed the promenade experience (including the cucumber sandwiches we were offered during one of the later acts).

Rain fell from the rafters during one scene, dampening a few people in the audience. I’m not sure how that special effect was accomplished, but it was amazingly effective for setting the scene’s melancholy mood.

The plot of “The Winter’s Tale” is this: King Leontes of Sicilia falsely accuses his pregnant wife Hermione of adultery with his friend Polixines; his obsessive jealousy destroys his family, as wife and children are lost to illness, grief and abandonment.

The first act ends with a bear chasing Antigonus — who, on orders from Leontes, has reluctantly abandoned Leontes’ unacknowledged infant daughter Perdita to the elements.

(Fun Shakespeare trivia: this scene features the most famous of Shakespearean stage direction: “Exit, pursued by bear.”)

Sixteen years later, Perdita, lost in pastoral Bohemia, undertakes a journey that will heal her family’s wounds.

The updated setting, spanning the paranoid 1950s to the Woodstock era, is perfect for this play, which is notable for the emotional intensity of its first three acts and the broad comedy of the final two acts.

While all the principal actors are excellent, I found myself most enchanted by Linda Bassett as Paulina. Dressed to suggest Queen Elizabeth II, Bassett is riveting as the play’s voice of reason, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that she’s been nominated for a Best Actress Award by BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts, the UK equivalent of the Oscars).

With its 1960s vibe, the play’s second half is full of merriment and ribaldry and is great fun to watch.

When Autolycus (Richard Katz) emerged from a trapdoor wearing snug purple briefs (along with a tatty top hat and tails), the looks shot to one another by the three male Davidson students standing near me were priceless.

Looking a bit like Keith Richards and sounding like Bob Dylan with better diction, Autolycus — a shifty but winsome “guy on the make,” as Katz calls him — brings edgy comedy to the play’s final two acts.

I got a chance to talk to Katz Tuesday morning, and he admitted that up until a week before he first played the part in Stratford, he was in a state of denial about the revealing nature of his costume.

As the time for the opening grew near, reality — “People are going to watch this!” — hit him.

“I just can’t think about the audience too much,” he says.

Not thinking too much obviously works, because Katz is fabulous.

Also hilarious are Richard Moore as the Old Shepherd and Trystan Gravelle as the Young Shepherd.

One scene involving dancing and revelry was so over-the-top bawdy and hilarious that I can’t really describe it in a family newspaper.

I was tired and sore of foot when I left the stage but grateful for the chance to have experienced such a high-quality, high-energy production — which struck me as Shakespeare performed the way it was meant to be performed. Intense, funny, shocking, sweet, sad, musical — this play features pretty much everything we love about the theatre, except there’s maybe a half-hour too much of it.

Fault Shakespeare for that, though, not this production.

If you choose the promenade placement wear sensible shoes or by the second act you will be fantasizing about hurling your heels at the audience members who chose traditional seating. The play runs through Feb. 17.

‘Pericles’

The other play being performed by the company is “Pericles,” which opens Friday, Feb. 9, and runs through Feb. 18. The play charts the odyssey of a man driven by love and loss.

It’s is considered a “troubled” play, Aberg says, because many scholars believe Shakespeare only wrote part of it.

The RSC production of “Pericles” is set in a war-torn African country and a contemporary European city. Combining fairy tale elements and raw human emotions, the story of Pericles’ search for his wife becomes an epic and magical journey of discovery.

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Contact Katie Scarvey at 704-797-4270 or kscarvey@salisburypost.com.

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