The Pearl Theatre’s recent production of The Winter’s Tale was for the most part, an intimate exploration of the power of faith, and bucked a recent trend of darker interpretations of the final scene in favor of a full reconciliation that put Leontes back at the heart of his reconstructed family. At the heart of Michael Sexton’s interpretation was a domestic drama that depended on the good will of the audience to complete the reconfiguration of the family that occured at the end of the play. Like Autolycus’ card tricks at the beginning of the production, the production was a sleight of hand that promised delight, as long as one does not look too closely.
Michael Sexton’s production was set in a contemporary, if old-fashioned dining room, and the intimacy of this setting gave the first act tremendous emotional power. Domesticating the play to such a level intensified Leontes’ betrayal of his wife, Hermione (who was performed with an exceptional combination of warmth and strength by Jolly Abraham), and amplified the violation of trust that occurs when he demanded that Camillo poison his houseguest.
The modernity of the production worked well to give Hermione a strength that is not always present in other productions, but weakened the younger lovers, both of whom never quite rose to the material. The reimagining of the Sheep-hearing festival as a down-home southern barbeque was made all the more enjoyable by Steven Cuiffo’s Autolycus’ high-energy folk music, but the joyful modernity that the gaggle of shepherds engender made Florizel and Perdita appeared to be puritanical relics by comparison.
In spite of the ostensibly realistic setting, the production repeatedly drew attention to its own artificiality. The Antigonus-eating bear, for example, was constructed by the fur-clad ensemble, moving around under coats, as it made pieces of Paulina’s husband. The theatrical self-awareness was mostly very effective, but the production occasionally demanded slightly more faith than the play might afford, such as when the family’s newly discovered unity is predicated on the conflation between the deceased Mamillius and Florizel, who are both played by James Udom. Possibly unwittingly, this casting decision evoked Greene’s source text, Pandosto, which itself foregrounds incest more directly than Shakespeare ever does, by having the King of Bohemia try to forcibly seduce his daughter, only to kill himself when he realizes who she is (thankfully, Shakespeare took a more upbeat path when he wrangled his source).
In spite of its contemporary setting, and its truly delightful enthusiasm, the Pearl’s production offered a quite conservative resolution to a tricky play. By returning the family to Leontes’ patriarchal rule, with full compliance of those at the court, it avoided any meaningful recognition of what has been lost, and more importantly, undermines female autonomy, reducing Hermione to an unhappy and vindictive wife, and silencing Pauline with the assignment of a husband. The Winter’s Tale is a play that repeatedly demands that we awake our faith, but the Pearl’s production occasionally threatens to reduce its magic to a cheap card trick.