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Getting Uneven

Brilliant Moments Make Up For Dunderheaded Ones in Local Shakespeare Production

THE ROAR IN THE FLOOR: Steven Carpenter's king attacks his court.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 4/16/2008

The Winter's Tale

By William Shakespeare

At the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival through April 27

One of the big challenges in staging Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale is making plausible its Sicilian King Leontes' sudden outburst of jealousy against his queen, Hermione. There are so few grounds for his suspicions. Yes, she is polite and pleasant to their house guest, Polixenes, the king of Bohemia and Leontes' childhood friend, but she does nothing to make her husband jealous. Nonetheless, in the play's second scene, Leontes is shouting wild accusations through the palace chambers, even suggesting that the queen's swollen belly was filled not with his own seed but with the Bohemian's.

In the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's flawed but occasionally brilliant production at St. Mary's Outreach Center, director Kathleen Akerley turns the very implausibility of Leontes' jealousy into an asset. She turns the scene into a consideration of the question: How does someone sustain an irrational belief in the face of countervailing facts? By going on the offensive, Akerley suggests.

Leontes doesn't have to weigh the evidence, because he lashes out at anyone who even hints at an opinion different from his own. He doesn't have to defend his belief, because he forces everyone else to defend their honesty, even their patriotism. It's as if the king insisted on invading a foreign country because it harbored weapons of mass destruction despite all the evidence to the contrary.

The director has the right actor for this approach. As Leontes, Steven Carpenter is a bundle of fury as he paces the stage in his knee-high black boots, his long, blue-leather coat trailing behind him. He never allows his wife or trusted advisers to question his conclusions, because he's so aggressively questioning theirs. With his trim beard and angular face, Carpenter resembles a predatory animal on the attack, and those around him despair of rational discussion and cringe in defensive postures. It's a terrific scene, one that finally makes sense of this mystifying passage.

If only the entire production had been so successful. But for every inspired decision that Akerley makes, she adds one that backfires badly. She begins the production, for example--and finishes it as well--with Archidamus, a Bohemian lord, and Camillo, a Sicilian lord, reading the play's lines as if from a fairy tale in a large red book. This is the kind of heavy-handed symbolism that deadens the action onstage. Then Hermione (Teresa Castracane) appears with an unconvincing bulge beneath her blue satin gown--a bulge that resembles a boxy, hidden Christmas present more than an eighth-month pregnancy.

Worse yet, K. Clare Johnson, who plays Archidamus in the first scene, also plays Mamillius in the second with too little alteration in dress and accent to make clear the difference. Moreover, the adult, female curves of her body make it implausible that she's the king's young son. Worst of all, Johnson reappears in the same costume plus a short cape to announce Mamillius' death, thus thoroughly confusing audience members who must wonder how a young boy, even one in a woman's body, can pronounce his own obituary. And yet Akerley, in the program notes, insists that this death is the key to the play, apparently unaware that it's the weakest moment in her production.

For every scene that stumbles, though, there's one that soars. After Leontes has intimidated everyone else in the court, he finally meets his match in Paulina, one of Shakespeare's greatest female characters. The wife of Lord Antigonus, Paulina is so angry at how her best friend the queen has been treated that she doesn't care what Leontes threatens to do to her. He can kill her if he likes, but she's going to tell him what's going on without sparing any facts or venom.

As Paulina, Kathleen Coons is an actress who can go nose-to-nose with Carpenter's Leontes without giving an inch. With her dark, red hair pinned back and her jaw jutted forward, Coons has a bark loud enough and fierce enough to answer Carpenter's.

Later, when Leontes finally realizes the terrible mistake he's made, when he learns that his groundless assumptions have led to the deaths of his son and wife and the banishment of his daughter, he crumples to the ground in grief. Paulina kneels beside him, leaning over him, pouring on his just desserts: "O, thou tyrant, do not repent these things, for they are heavier than all thy woes can stir. Therefore betake thee to nothing but despair."

Then something unexpected happens. Paulina recognizes just how broken her king is and ceases her torrent of abuse. Coons embraces Carpenter's back, rubbing it, soothing her maddened monarch, promising to help him rebuild their ravaged kingdom. It's an astonishing turnabout, a scene powerful enough to justify the whole evening.

Akerley breaks for intermission not in the usual place--before the beginning of Act IV, when Father Time (an unconvincing Johnson again) explains that 16 years have elapsed--but two and a half scenes later, in the middle of "When Daffodils Begin to Appear." After intermission, Carpenter resumes the song as King Leontes, but thanks to an onstage costume change finishes the song as Autolycus, Bohemia's notorious thief, liar, and con man. Carpenter is as good a wily hustler as he is a berserk monarch, and his Autolycus soon stumbles upon a sheep-shearing festival presided over by the local beauty Perdita.

We in the audience know that Perdita is Leontes' infant daughter, who was abandoned on a foreign shore to be raised by shepherds, but she doesn't know that. She believes she's a commoner and that her romance with Bohemia's Prince Florizel is thus doomed. As Perdita, Lindsay Haynes is thoroughly persuasive as a teenager in love: She blurts out secret feelings and then covers them with blushes; she boldly flirts with the prince and then bashfully retreats from him. As Florizel, Jay Hardee is nearly as convincing, especially when he twists and turns his beanpole body in a sulk after his father Polixenes forbids the couple's engagement.

What we are left with is a maddening production that has four or five scenes that are absolutely stunning, another four or five scenes that are embarrassing in their ineptitude, and a bunch of scenes that are merely competent. Akerley's solution for the challenging statue scene at the play's end, for example, is not nearly as satisfying as her solution for the jealousy scene at the beginning. Some might avoid such an uneven production, but brilliance in the theater is so rare that it is worth seeking out, no matter what surrounds it.

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