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Women speak truth to power in TFANA’s ‘Winter’s Tale’

April 8, 2018 By Benjamin Preston Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Arnie Burton. Photo by Carol Rosegg
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A bear that dances like a sports team mascot, a Broadway actor who steals wallets from the audience and folk-singing actors are all on the menu in Arin Arbus’s direction of “The Winter’s Tale” at the Theater for a New Audience (TFANA). With sketchbook sets and dreamlike costumes, TFANA offers a fresh take on Shakespeare’s tragicomedy: honing in on the role strong women have to play in sorting out the problems brought on by misogynistic paranoia and ego. It’s a theme that dovetails well with today’s outspoken push against gender- and class-based inequality.

“The Winter’s Tale” is a tricky play for any theater company to tackle. Jumping from one genre to the other, it almost seems as though the story’s various parts could have been written by different people.

The story begins in Sicilia in an unspecified ancient time (the characters believe in Greek gods). Polixines, the king of Bohemia (Dion Mucciacito) has been visiting his best friend, Leontes, king of Sicilia (Anatol Yusef) for some months. Leontes becomes suddenly convinced that Hermione (Kelley Curran), his pregnant queen, has been sleeping with Polixenes, and orders his valet, Camillo (Michael Rogers), to poison the visiting king. Camillo, seeing the error of his master’s judgment, warns Polixenes and takes off with him to Bohemia, leaving the queen and her unborn daughter at the mercy of the still-fuming Leontes.

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No one — even the oracle at Delphi — is able to sway the Sicilian king from his belief that he has been cuckolded, and, being king and not subject to question, ruin’s everyone’s lives (including his own) with rash, terrible retribution. The result is a dead son, a supposedly dead queen, an exiled infant daughter and a kingdom’s worth of regret for the repentant king. The dancing bear returns to chase — and, implicitly, maul — the minister the king sent to abandon his daughter to the ravages of nature.

The audience is left feeling heavy, but as the second act begins 16 years later, the clowns arrive. Autolycus (Arnie Burton), an itinerant thief who somehow manages to tie together the story’s various narrative threads as he lightens the mood of the audience with his antics. An old Bohemian shepherd (John Keating) and his idiotic son (Ed Malone) have raised the queen’s daughter, Perdita (Nicole Rodenburg) — in Bohemia.Perdita is now a teenager and has fallen in love with Polixenes’ rebellious son, Florizel (Eddie Ray Jackson), who has run away from home. The tragedy of old is glossed over in a sappy forgiveness-fest that culminates in a statue unexpectedly coming to life. Both statue fantasy and widespread grace seem discordant with the megalomaniacal witch hunt that unfolded in the previous act.

Such is the nearly 500-year-old script the modern theater company has to work with. Arin Arbus, resident director at TFANA, said in an interview that she wanted to make it clear that the “Winter’s Tale” world she created was not a literal one. Sparse, all-white sets by Riccardo Hernandez and simple, anachronistic costumes by Emily Rebholz tend to draw more focus upon the characters, much like children’s books that leave backgrounds as bare sketches with only the characters colored in. Justin Ellington’s sparsely instrumented score rounds out the production’s minimalist backdrop.

It works to a degree, but the time-jumping costumes is a little confusing at first. In the first act, the players are dressed as though they could be been attending court with Czar Nicholas II, while in the second everyone appears ready to run on down to the county fair in 1930s Mississippi. An American take on Bohemia? Perhaps. Fortunately, the pull of this distraction isn’t overbearing, and the force of performance slaps the viewer’s attention back onto the disjointed story.

Yusef’s Naopleonic stature and commanding presence as Leontes are perfect for a role that pits the whims of a despot against the futile pleas of his subordinates. He does a convincing job of whipping Leontes into a foam-mouthed rage over the infidelity he suspects, but his performance — which later includes chest beating remorse — merely sets up the play’s leading ladies to deliver the punch that gives this production its motive spark. Curran lays bare the selflessness of motherhood while Mahira Kakkar delivers the play’s strongest performance as Paulina, the queen’s attendant. In several fiery scenes, she boldly speaks truth to power, even as the king topples those he suspects of perfidy. It’s almost as if she has channeled all the intensity of today’s protest marches toward this single fictional power abuser.

But Arbus says not to look too deeply for a connection between the tyrant from “The Winter’s Tale” and modern day examples of the same. Unlike tyrants or would-be tyrants around the world today, Shakespeare’s villains, she said, tend to be introspective and attempt to make sense of their place in the world. This isn’t something we’re likely to see in real life at present.

The stars of the second act are the clowns: Burton, Keating and Malone. After watching the consequences of uncontrollable jealousy unfold, they’re the most enjoyable facet of this bewildering narrative. In a hilarious performance, Burton breaks down the fourth wall to explore his character’s flamboyant side with members of the audience. Keating and Malone fill in the gaps, and make a compelling case that ignorance is, in fact, bliss.

Although not unusual in today’s theater scene, the different accents showcased by the actors in this play feels very Brooklyn. Whether it’s Kakkar’s Indian accent, Oberon K.A. Adjepong’s Ghanian one (he plays Antigonus, the character who gets ripped to shreds offstage by the dancing bear) or Keating an Malone’s Celtic twang, TFANA’s “Winter’s Tale” celebrates the universality of Shakespeare’s legacy in a way that hits close to home in our diverse borough. Even if this rendition of a difficult-to-execute play feels a little shaky now and again, the end result is an enjoyable performance that adapts well to its audience’s sensibilities.

“The Winter’s Tale” is playing at the Theater for a New Audience, in Fort Greene through April 15.

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