Bear with Me: ‘The Winter’s Tale’ at Af-Am Shakes

Winter's Tale at Af-Am Shakes - banner

“Of this allow,
If ever you have spent time worse ere now;
If never, yet that Time himself doth say
He wishes earnestly you never may.”

– William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, Act III, sc. 3

Between their recent production of August Wilson’s Jitney (staged at the Marine’s Memorial Theater) and now this staging of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (at the Taube Atrium Theater), following Af-Am Shakes around town had led me to a couple of interesting theatre locations. “Interesting” not only in their architecture and use of space in the productions, but also due to the fact that, frankly, I should have visited these locations long ago. Perhaps I never found a good reason to visit the Marine’s Memorial, but after all the supernumerary work I’ve done with the SF Opera, I’m surprised I’ve only now set foot in the Taube. Better late than never, I guess.

The Winter’s Tale is definitely an interesting choice to stage in a new space. Considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” the script presents narrative and technical nightmares for anyone crazy enough to stage it. A bold setting is the first impression one gets when walking into the theatre. After stepping through the pristine lobby of the Taube, you’re greeted by Kevin Landesman’s minimalist set featuring three platforms, each with red, white, and blue vinyl streamers reaching to the ceiling. For the next 2 ½ hours, this will be our home as we watch one of the most confounding ever written by the greatest author in the English language.

King Leontes has it all. He has the respect of his Sicilian citizens; he has a close friendship with Polixenes, king of neighboring country Bohemia; and he has the love of Queen Hermione, who will soon deliver their next child. He also has an incurable case of paranoia. When he begins to suspect that Hermione and Polixenes are having an affair, it sets Leontes down a path of misguided revenge from which there’s no return.

But even in the aftermath of tragedy, a spark of hope is ignited. As characters come of age in Bohemia, they just may have the opportunity to correct the mistakes of the past.

It’s funny that a recent production of Julius Caesar has garnered so much controversy for making the title character strongly resemble the Orange Menace currently infecting the White House. In fact, it’s outright hypocritical when you consider – as has already been mentioned by a much better blogger than I – one of the show’s now-former sponsors also sponsored a production where the role was an Obama avatar. Not a peep.

Af-Am Shakes’ production of The Winter’s Tale also uses No. 44’s likeness, this time for King Leontes. Perhaps it’s to show that even a beloved leader can fall susceptible to envy, paranoia, and pure madness. Y’know, kinda like how Shakespeare wrote it in the first place – a subject he’s also explored in a lot of those plays he’s written?

At least that’s the part of Winter’s Tale that’s easy to decipher. It’s funny that it’s gotten a reputation as a “problem play” when that term actual refers to a play that tackles a then-contemporary social issue. Winter’s Tale, like Merchant of Venice, is more contemporarily regarded as problematic because of its uncomfortable clash of tragedy and comedy. After 400 years, it still suffers from Split-Personality Disorder: the first half being one of the author’s most wrenching tragedies (casting a Black man as Leontes further illuminates the narrative parallels to Othello) and the latter half being one of his most romantic comedies, complete with ending wedding. Plus, the (some would say over-) use of narrators, particularly in the final act, makes it seem more like the work of someone on a deadline than a steady literary hand.

So how does director Peter Callender tackle one of theatre’s trickiest works? By swinging for the fences. He plays the tragedy for every bit of heartbreak and the comedy as sketch comedy.  Leontes’ paranoia is represented by “spectral” cast members in masks mocking him from the back of the set. Autolycus is a Bugs Bunny-style comedian, complete with chewed carrot and Cliff Caruthers’ equally “zany” sound cues. The Bard’s most famous stage direction is represented by the sound of a growling bear and a spotlight by Kevin Myrick. The final monologue wrapping up the off-screen story is rapped to the theme from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I did not make up a single word of that. Not all of the choices work – the spectral voices start off pretty awkward and the “Thriller” dance at top of Act II works better on paper – but they’re all choices determined to give the production its own identity.

It would take too long to single out every cast member, but the one I must mention is young Cameron Payne as Mamillius (that’s him holding the bear up there in the banner). He’s rotating the role with an actor named Atlantis Clay, but young Payne stole the show at the performance I saw. I was kinda jealous that a kid his age took so easily to Shakespeare’s, when I didn’t until much older. Add in his aforementioned Fresh Prince scene, and the kid was the show’s MVP. Not to be forgotten are Regina Morones as Hermione and Brittany Sims as Paulina. In addition to peppering Shakespeare’s words with Spanglish translations, Morones shows a regal dignity that is slowly chipped away as she’s condemned for a crime she didn’t commit. Said crime is powerfully called out by Sims’ Paulina, one of the few characters to show Leontes (Eric Reid) the breadth of damage he causes.

Watching Awele Makeba run off as Antigonus only to return moments later as the Shepherd could have gone terribly wrong in the hands of a lesser actress. Fortunately, Makeba’s transition from royal victim to Caribbean clown goes off without a hitch (save for one unzipped boot). The clown proper (Marlo Su), Autolycus (Titus VanHook), Polixenes (ShawnJ West) futher color in an eclectic ensemble (with a nod Edward Ewell’s conflicted Camillo, who was a pleasure to watch). I’ve worked with Eric Reid (Leontes) and Jasmine Williams (Perdita) before, but it’s a good cast.

No matter what your definition of “problem play,” perhaps the best course of action isn’t thinking you can solve the problem so deeply ingrained into the text. The Winter’s Tale is two stories that have never quite fit together, but at least Af-Am Shakes’ new production makes a version that’s pleasant to watch.

GRADE:                B-

The Winter’s Tale is scheduled to run until the 18th of June at the Taube Atrium Theater in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 2 ½ hours with one 10-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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