THE BASICS: THE WINTER’S TALE by Shakespeare, a comedy/romance/tragedy/fantasy presented by Shakespeare in Delaware Park, opened their 41st season. Directed by Saul Elkin, starring Matt Witten, Jen Stafford, Lisa Vitrano, Tom Loughlin, Steve Braddock, Patrick Moltane with standout performances by Jordan Levin and Jordan Louis Fischer, it runs on the newly upgraded stage every Tuesday through Sunday at 7:30 p.m. until July 17, at “Shakespeare Hill” in Delaware Park. When using GPS enter this address: 199 Lincoln Parkway, Buffalo, NY 14222. Parking for Shakespeare in Delaware Park is on-street parking but please note: The City of Buffalo Parking Enforcement has announced they will be ticketing cars parked on the parkland grass or grassy medians along Lincoln Parkway. Run time is 3 hours (7:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. with one 20-minute intermission. Food and souvenirs available. Bring your own blanket or folding chair and a jacket since temperatures do drop after dark. Performances are FREE and open to the public with good-will donations gratefully accepted by the actors who come out into the audience at intermission! Information at (716) 856-4533.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: This is a Shakespeare comedy/romance (tinged with tragedy and fantasy), so don’t get too hung up on the plot. Or the geography. In a nutshell, in Act I a king, rather like Othello, becomes insanely suspicious of his wife and behaves very badly. But, in Act II, young love conquers all.
For those who like to know a bit more, here we go (freely adapted from the SIDP program): Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, has been visiting his old friend King Leontes in Sicily for nearly nine months. (Hmmmm. NINE MONTHS. That rings a bell.) But Polixenes is eager to go home to Bohemia. Leontes begs him to stay in Sicily longer but Polixenes is anxious about his family (and with a teenage son at home he should be) and declines. However, when Leontes’ pregnant wife, Hermione, succeeds in persuading Polixenes to stay, Leontes becomes insanely jealous and obsessed with the thought that his wife has been unfaithful with his friend, and he orders his minister, Camillo, to poison Polixenes. Camillo warns Polixenes instead and they flee the country leaving Hermione and her little boy, the fragile Mamilius, to face the King’s anger.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…. Tony Soprano, I mean Leontes, imprisons Hermione and she delivers a baby girl in prison. A lady in waiting, Paulina, takes the baby to Leontes to try to persuade him to accept her. Instead Leontes orders Paulina’s husband, Antigonous, to take the baby and leave it in some remote place. That’s not enough, though. So, still on a rage fueled rampage, King Leontes puts his own wife, Hermione, on trial. BUT… she is vindicated by the Oracle of the god Apollo. It’s not all smiles, though, because, at the trial, Hermione’s son, Mamilius, dies from emotional wounds and Hermione herself collapses and appears to die. (Note: APPEARS to die. Remember, this is Shakespeare.). And this is comedy? Really, it is. Hang in there. We’re almost done with Act I.
Antigonous (angry King Leontes’ servant) dutifully (and strongly against his wife Paulina’s wished) places the baby on a seacoast (not in Sicily but in Bohemia) and flees “pursued by a bear” (a famous enigmatic stage direction by Shakespeare). An old shepherd and his son discover the child and take her to their home and name her Perdita (“lost one” in Latin). So, to review, so far, only one actual death has been verified, and that’s the boy Mamilius.
Intermission: Time to donate some money to the actors meandering through the audience, take selfies with them, post on social media using the word “amazing”, buy a snack, get a souvenir tee-shirt, visit the porta-potties, donate $1 to win Hermione’s jewelry.
Act II – Sixteen years have passed, the play takes on a happier romantic tone, and we have some traditional Shakespearean comedy. (Well it’s about time!) The abandoned baby, Perdita, is now a lovely 16-year old girl. But it’s not a comedy unless we’re heading to a wedding. Cue Florizel, the Prince of Bohemia, the son of King Polixenes, heir to the throne, who falls in love with young Perdita. (Remember that Perdita’s mom was vindicated, so we have legal proceedings on file that Florizel and Perdita are not half brother and sister, in case you were wondering.) Polixines is outraged that his son has arranged to marry a commoner (the dads aren’t looking too good in this play). After a series of twists and turns everyone winds up back in Sicily where a repentant Leontes, now reconciled with his old friend King Polixenes and the daughter (Perdita) he never knew are taken by the faithful servant Paulina to see a newly completed statue of the presumed late Hermione (Perdita’s birth mom, the one who APPEARED to die) and the statue moves! Hermione has lived in seclusion in the belief that her daughter would one day be found. By gosh, it is a happy ending for (almost) all.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Things got rolling on opening night when SIDP Managing Director, Lisa Ludwig, and Founder/Artistic Director, Saul Elkin, thanked those donors who had made the new stage possible and cut the ceremonial ribbon. Elkin pointed out that most of the improvements were behind or below the stage and could not be seen, but noted that the new loudspeakers were superior and two of the four light towers had been moved behind the audience so as to improve sight lines. The stage, he explained, could be reconfigured in three styles, but for this summer, they would use only one such configuration. To be honest, except for the lighting towers, I didn’t see a big difference from last year, but the actors and stage crew apparently do, or will.
After a little prologue, two seasoned pros, Matt Witten as King Leontes of Sicilia and Patrick Moltane as King Polixenes, get the audience settled right away with their strong performances. Moltane, along with Tom Loughlin who plays Camillo, the right hand man of first Leontes and later Polixenes, and Steve Braddock, who plays the conflicted Antigonus and later the embodiment of “Time” (as in 16 years), are all three members of Actor’s Equity, lending their sure, steady performances to the evening.
At various times I asked myself “Why does this Shakespeare seem so easy to follow? Why am I not struggling at all with Elizabethan speech? Is it because this is Shakespeare’s next to last play? Did he write it differently?” So at intermission I asked the Director, Saul Elkin, and he beamed and said that was the result of a lot, repeat, a lot of hard work on the part of the actors. What Elkin has been developing over the years is what he calls an American Shakespeare, not an English Shakespearean voice. Well, it all came together here. So, if you have been put off from your Shakespeare by yards of dialog which are incomprehensible, this play will be refreshing.
The other performers offer serviceable performances, which is appreciated, since there are no awkward moments. But in addition to the four roles mentioned, there are three stellar performances which deserve special attention.
At the end of Act I, we meet Paulina, played by Lisa Vitrano, who at first appears to be just another lady-in-waiting attending Hermione. We soon find out that she is one kick-ass advocate of truth and justice. Obviously the character Paulina has had practice ruling her marriage to Antigonus, but when she takes on the deranged Leontes, we are all in the palm of her hand. This role could be screechy, bitchy, angry to the point of blind rage, but actor Vitrano keeps it all focused with a building intensity. By Apollo I swear, if I ever have to go to court, even for a parking ticket, I want her as my mouthpiece.
Then, in Act II, we meet one of the shepherds, whose character is listed as Clown, played by the wonderful Jordan Louis Fischer, last year a standout in SIDP’s Twelfth Night as the cross-dressing Viola. His performance then was so strong I was truly surprised when last month he was presented with a Blossom Cohan Debut Award at the 2016 Arties. Well, once again he is the delight of the audience, bouncing along, flawlessly delivering those often dense Shakespearean witticisms with a clear voice and a very animated body. And he can dance, too!
And the third standout is Jordan Levin, as Autolycus, who presents in a variety of disguises and roles, as a singer, pickpocket, usurer, trader, confidence man. Like Fischer, Levin can be very physical, and, in fact, the two engage in a scene where Autolycus literally steals the clothes off the Clown’s body, piece by piece. What a pas de deux, perfectly timed. But wait, there’s more. Levin is given a number of opportunities for his clear, bell like voice to ring out. Very enjoyable.
The only obvious flaw is that, with all the money spent on refurbishing the stage, apparently nothing was left over for the microphone system. It is rough. Several characters had their mics fail to work, or break up, or drop out. Others mics were scratchy. And the cueing of the mics was as bad as the mics themselves. Many lines were delivered with the first half inaudible and then the mics would suddenly pop on. Hopefully that will be addressed.
But, mics aside, go. And, since it’s free, go twice because, in my experience, Shakespeare is so rich, you can’t take it all in with only one visit. I know I’ll be back.
Lead image: Pictured from THE WINTER’S TALE is Matt Witten as Leontes and Scot Kaitanowski as Leontes Aide. Photography by Scinta Photography.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!