It’s one of Shakespeare’s most famous—perhaps infamous—stage directions: Exit, pursued by a bear. And the scene, depicted in Flagstaff Shakespeare Festival’s Thursday night preview of Winter’s Tale, looks as silly as it sounds.
Antigonus (Jacob Nichols), after leaving King Leontes’ (Jim Dugan) newborn daughter somewhere in the forest, is pursued by a bear (FlagShakes director Dawn Tucker) as she roars angrily. Following a brief trapeze performance, Tucker, clad with skin tight brown garments and furry paw hands, chases down Antigonus. But as all this is playing out, as Tucker’s magic moves across the trapeze rig, towering at almost the full height of the Branigar Hall at the Museum of Northern Arizona, as Antigonus lays out the details of his plan while Nick Rabe (who portrays Polixenes and other characters) shakes a metal thunder sheet, my eyes are focused on two bright red exit signs, hovering above every gesture and movement, every quip and aside, every solemn soliloquy and impassioned monologue. “Exit,” they say, not once, but twice, in every scene, in the brightly lit, minimally designed stage of Winter’s Tale, a tale set in the kingdom of Sicilia. “Exit,” they say, and so my wandering mind abides.
I’m thinking about a conversation I had with Tucker and Cameron Scully during FlagShakes’ run of God of Vengeance and Indecent, both of which were powerful plays and were performed at the Riordan State Historic Mansion. Scully, who co-directed Indecent, told me, “I think by doing these plays in specific places it does bring a whole other element to the play… Theater can happen anywhere; you just find a space and bring some chairs.” In both God of Vengeance and Indecent, the performances benefited from the location, using the Riordan Mansion’s history and décor to add to its authenticity.
During the intermission of Winter’s Tale, as a young man tells me about how he broke his collar bone playing ultimate Frisbee, I’m rehashing the plot of the first act, trying to imagine how the location affects the scene, finding myself more prone to believing that theater can’t happen everywhere, at least perhaps not here in Branigar Hall.
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King Leontes and his wife Hermione (Claire Whittman) are expecting a baby, when the king suddenly grows mad with jealousy over his good friend Polixenes, fearing, for seemingly no reason at all, an affair between Polixenes and Hermione. Leontes orders his courtier Camilla (Hannah Fontes) to poison Polixenes, but instead she warns him of the threat and both flee to Bohemia. Hermione is imprisoned and gives birth to a baby girl, a child the king is unconvinced is his. The queen stands trial and is condemned to death by Leontes, despite the Oracle’s proclamation of innocence. The baby is abandoned in the wilderness by Antigonus when he is eaten by the bear. The scene is followed by a brief intermission where The Beach Boys sing, “God only knows what I’d be without you/ if you should ever leave me,” reminding us not to worry, that this is still a love story.
What works here is the stage. Although scarcely designed, the stage, made up of two platforms conjoined by a long strip in the middle, lets us see the distance created by Leontes’ paranoia. Lovers and friends are split apart by a king consumed with jealousy and self-doubt, with characters screaming at each other from across the platform. Performances by Dugan, Whittman, Becki Zaritsky (Paulina) and Lee Bryant (Autolycus, Emilia, Dion), who engages the audience when she portrays a petty thief in the second half of the play, stand out and give the play weight beyond Shakespeare’s magical proclivity—a statue that comes to life—and limited sense of geography—Bohemia does not in fact have a coast or a desert. But as Bryant is warning the audience to guard their purses and staring directly into our watchful eyes, I’m thinking about the electrical hum of the ceiling lights, an aux cable on the speaker system buzzing after the intermission. As Leontes, 16 years later, is sulking in the remorse of having killed (or so he presumes) his wife and his baby daughter, I’m thinking about the first act in which he tells Antigonus he has “a sense as dead as a cold man’s nose.” I’m thinking of little things, like the untied black work boots underneath slick suits, jeans underneath flowing skirts, exit signs like hazard lights on dimly lit highway, a bumpy road leading somewhere interesting but not entirely memorable.
Perhaps it’s Shakespeare whose work is lauded for far too many reasons not worth revisiting here, but whose work can border along the awkwardly whimsical and hurriedly paced. Perhaps it’s the location within Branigar Hall—although outdoor performances are offered, which could have helped this production. But Winter’s Tale, although delightful and inventive in its adaptation of one of the Bard’s strangest and wildest plays, is far too frequently hindered by little things.