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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

A Winter's Tale
Ten Thousand Things Theater Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Night of the Living Dead! The Musical!, The Rocky Horror Show, Elektra, Snow White, Pipeline, The Hollow, and Nate the Great, the Musical


: Stephanie Betumen, Sha Cage and Stephen Epp
Photo by Peter Vitale
Ten Thousand Things Theater Company has kicked off its 2019-2020 season with William Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale in a spirited production that draws out the rich vein of comedy within the play, induces a smile with its satisfying romantic pairing, and tugs at the heartstrings when the plot turns to tragic events. Yes, this play is a stew with bit of everything, which is both a strength and a weakness. There are no weaknesses, though, with Ten Thousand Things' inventive staging, cast with an ensemble of first-rate actors and directed by Marcela Lorca to bring forth the full flavor of each of the play's ingredients, moving briskly, but with a clarity that holds the audience's attention.

Each of Shakespeare's thirty-eight known plays are categorized by scholars as either comedy, tragedy, or history. However, scholars also recognize that not all of his plays fit exactly into one of those three categories. Some suggest a fourth category, the romances, placing five of his last written plays on this list for stylistic elements closer to the "romance" than the "comedy" genre. There are also a number of plays considered "problem plays," assigned to one of the genres but noted as shifting abruptly to another, sometimes back and forth in the course of the play. A Winter's Tale is the only one of Shakespeare's plays found on both lists: a comedy, considered a romance by some, that also qualifies as a problem play.

The first act is set in winter, as the title suggests. A musical prelude alerts the audience to the powerful role time plays in our lives, as a leveler of all things. After this, we find ourselves in ancient Sicilia, where King Leontes of Sicilia has been hosting his childhood friend King Polixenes of Bohemia for a lengthy visit. Polixenes asserts that he has been gone from his country for too long and must return. Leontes begs his old friend to stay longer, but in vain. However, Leontes's gracious wife Hermione, who is pregnant, is able to convince him to stay. This raises the suspicion of Leontes, who conceives the notion that Hermione has been having an affair with Polixenes, and that the child she carries is his.

Burning with irrational jealously, Leontes plots to have Polixenes murdered, but the Bohemian king makes an escape. Now enraged, Leontes accuses Hermione, sends her to prison, and orders the child she gives birth to, a daughter who is named Perdita, to be left in the wilderness, subject to the elements and the beasts. Leontes' fury results in the death of three innocents, leaving the court at Sicilia in a sea of grief. Surely, up to this point, no one can think The Winter's Tale to be a comedy.

After a reprieve of the prelude to remind us of time's leveling power, act two is set sixteen years later, now spring, and we are in Bohemia. There is a spirit of youth, mischief, flirtation and possibility. In addition to King Polixenes, the characters now include a grown Perdita, the shepherd and his son who found Perdita as an abandoned baby and raised her as their own, Polixenes' virtuous son Florizel, and a sly con pickpocket who occasionally does good, albeit never on purpose. What a difference sixteen years, a change of season, and a new locale make! The stage is awash in bawdy hijinks, young love, and comical acts of larceny.

By its end, we are back in Sicilia, where all is reconciled, abetted by a supernatural act that comes from out of the blue. The last action taken is to pair off two individuals as husband and wife for no discernible reason but that Shakespeare's comedies usually end with multiple weddings. It could also be said that the premise beneath the entire play—Leontes' sudden obsessive jealousy—has no basis in what we know about his life-long friendship with Polixenes, but without it there would be no play.

More than any play by Shakespeare—perhaps more than any play, period, that I can recall, the two acts seem to be sprung from two different minds. Oh, the narrative runs clearly through both, with continuity in characters that ties the two halves together, but their difference in temperament is jarring. The second act in this production also includes a couple of musical scenes with bouncy songs composed by J.D. Steele and lively choreography by director Lorca, delightful stuff that would be grossly out of place in act one. The first half left me in knots over the wretched display of absolute power combined with delusional thinking run amok. The second act quickly disarmed me, dispersing all the stress dolloped out in act one, telling me that life, if we allow time to play with it, will turn out just fine, even joyful.

If the intended takeaway here is as Bobby McFerrin sings, "Don't Worry, Be Happy," I get that. Sure, in our current times, it is tempting to release our worries and let good times roll. On the other hand, tyrannical and cruel acts, abridgement of justice, and disregard of evidence should not be so lightly and joyfully forgotten. Leontes suffers sixteen years in anguish over his deeds, but by the second act, the impact of his depravity upon others seems to be negligible, and near promises us a happy ending. That is not generally the way life goes. Victims of tragedy rarely come out embracing their oppressors, living together happily ever after. Thus, we have a "problem play."

But even a "problem play" by Shakespeare is worth seeing. That goes twofold when it is a Ten Thousand Things production. This company uses strikingly minimal sets and no stage lighting at all in order to carry their production to people who rarely, if ever, get to see live theater, in places such as shelters, rehabilitation centers, adult learning programs, community centers and prisons. Elaborate, evocative costumes are cleverly designed to allow for quick changes and for a small number of actors to play multiple roles. Music and sound effects are, most often, provided by their brilliant music director, Peter Vitale. The plays are performed in small square spaces with the audience on all sides, only two rows deep, and with the lights on, you couldn't have a much more intimate experience in a theater.

To top it off, they draw from the upper echelon of Twin Cities actors, who always arrive at the top of their game. Stephen Epps, who won an Ivey Award playing Tevye in Ten Thousand Things' Fiddler on the Roof, is remarkable as Leontes, ratcheting up his poisonous jealousy before our eyes, then bleached of his life-force when he realizes his error. He also spends time as a delightfully coquettish shepherdess in act two. Sha Cage is galvanizing as Hermione, a persuasively warm hostess, wife and mother who is horrified and bereft by the accusations against her. James Craven is a stalwart Polixenes, indignant at the charges against him, but unyielding in dealing with his son.

Stephanie Bertumen is sweetly charming as Perdita, innocent of her rocky origins, and handles a puppet representing Leontes and Hermione's young son Mamillius with sensitivity. Christopher Jenkins conveys sincerity and determination as Florizel. Karen Weise-Thompson is hilarious as thieving Autolycus, a part written to draw laughs, which comes as second nature to Weise-Thompson, including her frank asides to the audience. In act one, as the principled nobleman Antigonus, she is the subject of Shakespeare's famously bizarre stage direction: "exit, pursued by a bear." The bear, in one of Sonya Berlovitz's wonderfully conceived costumes, makes a good showing as well.

Mo Perry convincingly plays two very different roles, the noblewoman Pauline, who defends Hermione's honor, and the hayseed Shepherd, who stumbles upon the abandoned infant Perdita. William Sturdivant is delightful as the Shepherd's clownish son and compelling as the earnest Camillo, a nobleman of Sicilia who defies his king. Completing the ensemble, Cristina Florencia Castro most ably veers from a lady-in-waiting, to a lord, to a mariner to a shepherdess.

A Winter's Tale starts off stirring up righteous anger at the wicked vanity of man and sorrow for those brought down by its intemperance. Then it discards that hand and instead entertains with jovial comic business and lilting musical scenes, the satisfaction of romance overcoming its obstacles, and with all loose ends tied up—even if the tying requires an unlikely bit of string to be braided on to the plot. Either side of the coin is a good reason to go to the theater, though I don't think Shakespeare makes a case for melding the two into one play. Fortunately, Ten Thousand Things' wonderful stagecraft and invention make this Winter's Tale a treat to see in any season.

A Winter's Tale runs through October 27, 2019, at The Open Book, 1011 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis MN; October 31, 2019 - November 10, 2019 at North Garden Theater, 929 West 7th Street, St. Paul MN; November 15, 2019 - November 19, 2019 at the Sheldon Theater, 443 West 3rd Street, Red Wing, MN. Tickets: $35.00. Pay what you can, $15.00 minimum, for those under 30 with ID at the door. Very limited tickets remain for free community performances. For tickets and information call 612-203-9502 or visit www.tenthousandthings.org.

Playwright: William Shakespeare; Director/Choreographer: Marcela Lorca; Song Composer: J.D. Steele; Music Director: Peter Vitale; Costumes: Sonya Berlovitz; Sets: Nick Golfis; Props: Nicole DelPizzo; Dramaturg: Jo Holcomb; Production Manager: Nancy Waldoch; Assistant Director: Sam Weisberg; Production Intern: Lily Hart.

Cast: Stephanie Bertumen (Perdita/Mamillius/ensemble), Sha Cage (Hermione/ensemble), Cristina Florencia Castro (Emilia/Cleomenes/Mopsa/Mariner/ensemble), James Craven (Polixenes/ensemble), Steven Epp (Leontes/Dorcas/ensemble), Christopher Jenkins (Florizel/First Lord/Jailer/ensemble), Mo Perry (Paulina/Shepard/ensemble), William Sturdivant (Clown/Camillo/Dion/ensemble), Karen Wiese-Thompson (Autolycus/Antigonus/ensemble).


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