Theater Review

Gamm's 'Winter's Tale' suffused with magic


Shakespeare’s comedies end in marriage and his Tragedies end in death; or so my old English professor always said. But the ends of tales, especially fairy tales, are suffused with magic and come complete with a moral. Such is very much the case with The Gamm’s excellent production of “The Winter’s Tale.” Director Fred Sullivan, Jr. and his spirited ensemble at The Gamm have crafted an evening of sheer entertainment that is elegant, enthralling and simply enchanting.

That Shakespeare was one of the greatest playwrights of all time goes without saying, but it must be noted that while talent and smarts are innate, wisdom, a commodity with which this play abounds, is only cultivated and acquired after time. “The Winter’s Tale” is one of the bard’s last plays, written at the culmination of a career that saw him move from the high jinks and revenge tragedies of his youth into a more mellow and meditative phase where reconciliation is as much an end as mere revenge. There is too a distinct “once upon a time” flavor to this tale, a quality that this production, gently and exactly, manages to convey.

This is, in fact, the first production of “The Winter’s Tale” I’ve seen that manages to capture and do justice to all of this play’s many and varied elements while maintaining a consistent and entertaining tone. This is both a balancing and a juggling act and this is a feat eminently pulled off with great grace by director Fred Sullivan Jr.

He knows well that we turn to tales like these, best told in the dark, by a night’s fire, for both entertainment and enlightenment. And Shakespeare here is as adept as the Grimm bothers at illuminating dark psychological truths; he explores but can’t explain (‘cause who can?) the dark and light terrain of our heart’s deepest desires.

To that end our director’s judicious interpretation of the text begins with lines that occur in act two, as a young boy tells us a ghost story “of sprites and goblins.” This sets our frame of mind perfectly and allows us to settle by the hearth. There is the briefest touch of ritual, too, in this show that seems like a waking dream, but all is done gently and easily, with a light touch and a pure and sure heart.

The show as well just looks simply gorgeous. Patrick Lynch’s set design is artificial in the best sense of the word, the simple trappings of white and one red curtain, plus some lights and a few spare set pieces underline the universal artifice of our tale, we could be in the kingdom of anyplace, any culture and this sets off the apt costumes of Jessie Darrell Jaradan (regally austere for Sicily, hint of Czech for Bohemia) so nicely that at times I felt I was looking into the illustrated pages of a children’s storybook.

And, as with any good and big ol’ storybook, there’s lots going on here between the pages and under the text. ”The Winter’s Tale” is, essentially, a children’s tale for grown-up hearts and minds and so includes sexual jealousy, considerable comedy, deceptions and self-delusions, follies, foibles, dark deeds, true love and an appearance by a bear. This is the stuff myth and fairy tales are made on, but what works is that the reality of this unreal situation is created and enacted here with the utmost clarity and charm.

Once upon a time, Leontes, King of Sicily, foolishly believed, without cause or any real provocation, that his Queen and love, Hermione, was in the amorous arms of his best pal Polixenes, the King of Bohemia. After that, considerable trouble and confusion ensues, but that’s all I’m saying about the plot, even with a four hundred year old play, you’ll get no spoilers from me. Suffice it to say that over time what gets tangled gets untangled, and all quite nicely too.

The expert cast of this production are all very well suited for the uses of enchantment. Tony Estrella is a marvel as King Leontes, so consumed by love sickness that he seems to possess a frailty of the soul, one that reminds us that jealousy, too, is a “dagger of the mind” one that cuts deeply those who would grasp at it. And he manages too to make his subsequent inner grief all too acutely felt by all of us.

Karen Carpenter is wonderful as Hermione, embodying both the ferocious clarity of the wrongfully accused and the sweet gentility of a pure heart. Jesse Hinson is nicely and appropriately earnest and impassioned as Polixenes.

This play is also well served by the gracious presence of Jeanine Kane as Paulina and here she conveys the sort of wisdom that seems both warm and hard won. Happily too, Director Fred Sullivan, Jr. displays his expert comic chops in the show, playing the thieving rogue Autolycus and he’s adept as ever at stretching gags and comedic business just to the breaking point before letting go; he’s as judiciously apt an entertainer here as he is at holding the directorial reins of the play.

And indeed, the graceful ease and authority with which Mr. Sullivan inhabits this role sets the standard for the entire ensemble here. I liked very much Steven Liebhauser as court advisor Camillo, he seemed to radiate well modulated reason. Richard Donelly lent his considerable authority to Antgonus. Mark S. Cartier and Marc Dante Mancini were both well marked for gentle nonsense and well matched as an old shepherd and his clownish son. Jeff Church and Nora Eschenheimer were both sheer sweetness personified as the young lovers Florizel and Perdita. A gentle, but exact, certitude met all these actor’s ends onstage and the end result was utterly charming.

And there is considerable charm, along with some magic and a miracle that infuses this play. Unique in the canon, “The Winter’s Tale”, is, like the next play that followed, “The Tempest”, a meditation on the consequences, over time, of our actions. So what’s the moral of this tale? Embrace the irrationality of love. Eschew the irrationality of hate. Embrace what is good and hopeful, for your own good. Embrace your faith. Forgive. And, though the summer is nigh, get yourself a cozy space by the fire and hearken to this wonderful “Winter’s Tale.”

“The Winter’s Tale”, by William Shakespeare, at The Gamm Theatre, now through May 29. See listings for details.


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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.