“I mean, first we’ve got Queen Hermione and her jealous husband who destroys her life, right? This part is pure tragedy: the hero’s hubris, tragic fall and subsequent realization—the whole bit. But then you just skip the next 16 years, and the second half of the play is all about how the queen’s daughter, Perdita, falls in love with Prince Florizel. It’s got romance, mistaken identities, clowns, farce ... all the elements of your best comedies. I don’t know, it just feels like you’ve got two different plays here.”
Sadly, I’ll never have the chance to give our language’s greatest wordsmith my sage advice, and Winter’s Tale remains a fascinating yet problematic play. But director Paul Ford boldly tackles its challenges in The Vortex’s final installment of Will Power, the theater’s annual summer Shakespeare festival.
In this production, the differences between the two halves are sharply contrasted. The tone, rhythm and style of the play change radically at intermission. The costumes, lavishly designed by Robyn Schlegel, move from somber blues and grays in the first act to bright yellows and reds in the second. Even the physicality of the actors changes from stoic realism to broad farce.
At first, this transition is troubling. But by the end of the play, the brilliance of the choice becomes clear. There’s almost something metatheatrical about it. A deconstruction of Shakespeare’s two greatest genres: if comedy and tragedy got into a fistfight, which would win?
The cast does excellent ensemble work, too. In one particularly striking sequence, the actors crawl across the stage as a leader claps out a rhythm to signify the passage of time. These moments are expertly constructed and visually arresting, though the sheer number of cast members squeezed into The Vortex’s tiny space occasionally makes for an awkward portrait.
The presence of the ensemble also often aptly evokes that of a Greek chorus in the first part, and Ford weaves in language from Shakespeare's own source material, Pandosto: The Triumph of Time, to create a narrative structure for his players to echo. The result drives home the feeling that we are witnessing a tragedy in the most classic sense.
Paulina, Hermione’s sage friend and advocate, played with grace by Kathy Millé Wimmer, serves as the leader of the Greek-inspired chorus. In her omniscience, she eventually comes to embody Time itself. It is a massive amount to saddle one character with, and it does, at times, get confusing. But Wimmer commands the part and, in the end, it’s from her that we learn the lesson of Shakespeare’s genre showdown. As Time, she says, “I, that please some, try all, both joy and terror.” Time brings all things to fruition: Comedy begets tragedy and tragedy, comedy.
Without the terrible events of the first half of the play, the joyful ending of the second could not have been possible. It reminds me of the old adage, “all endings are happy; if it isn’t happy, it isn’t the end yet.” And specifically, in The Vortex's Winter’s Tale, joy and sorrow, comedy and tragedy, are not separate, neatly divisible entities—but interwoven, inextricable parts of the human experience.