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Shakespeare's "The Winter’s Tale" at McCarter Theatre

Shakespeare's "The Winter’s Tale" at McCarter Theatre

If you think all of Shakespeare’s plays follow the same traditional story lines, think again. McCarter Theatre’s production of “The Winter’s Tale,” one of his late romances, will surely have you seeing the playwright in a new light. In this play, Shakespeare abandons traditional dramatic structure and tells a tale set in the vastly different worlds of Sicilia and Bohemia. The play is a whirlwind affair that McCarter describes as “tragic, romantic, hilarious and uplifting." This production is extremely visual and filled with music. It features “princes and princesses, disguised identities, jealous kings, oracles, pickpockets and one ravenous bear!”

While the original play included over 30 actors in Shakespeare’s day, this production is streamlined, utilizing just nine actors -- most playing two characters (one based in Sicilia and one in Bohemia). The effect makes the two worlds even more surreal, while more connected as well.

“The Winter’s Tale” has performances April 2-23 at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton. It is a co-production with The Shakespeare Theatre Company and McCarter -- a pair that previously teamed up for a production of “Twelfth Night”a few seasons past. Following the run in New Jersey, the entire cast from will perform the show at the home of The Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, D.C.

When asked to describe the play, actor Tom Story said, “It’s the story of how unhappiness, rage and jealousy can cause terrible things to happen. But, over the course of the play, it’s also like a path to forgiveness. It goes from this sort of stark male world into this other, wilder bohemian world and back. It’s through that whole journey that there is forgiveness.”

Rebecca Taichman, who directs this production, agrees. On an interview presented on McCarter’s website she says, “Our production is organized around a central theme in the play: transformation. “The Winter’s Tale” investigates how the human spirit can be transformed by jealously, by love, by forgiveness.”

One of the aspects that make this play so different from much of Shakespeare’s earlier works is the manner in which time is portrayed. Time is not linear, it bounces from one time period to another. It’s almost as if this is Shakespeare during a sort of Cubist phase, in which he decided to move beyond what was expected into new ground.

“He just opened up his ideas,” added Story. “That’s what is so great about this play -- it’s two things and many things and they exist side by side. I think he simply stopped worrying about trying to make everything stylistically like before.”

Along with Story, a fellow member of The Shakespeare Theater Company, Ted van Griethuysen is also glad to be back at McCarter. “I really love Princeton,” he says. “It’s a wonderful atmosphere. It’s got one of the best universities in America, so you’ve got an audience that is perfect for Shakespeare. If you look at McCarter’s season schedule, it’s a very rich, cultural venue.”

Few of Shakespeare contemporaries are still produced regularly and, when one thinks of modern playwrights, it’s difficult to imagine many existing hundreds of years into the future as well. So, what is it about Shakespeare’s work that makes him so unique? What keeps people coming back, year after year, to see his shows staged in both traditional and modern productions? Considering the vast resume of Tom Story and Ted van Griethuysen, I thought they would be the perfect people to ask.

“He’s better than all of the others,” states van Griethuysen. “When someone asks me, ‘What is Shakespeare?’ the answer would be that it’s not the plot for the plays, because those he gets mostly from other sources. It’s not even the characters, but that comes closer.

“Shakespeare is what he says and how he says it,” continues van Griethuysen. “He’s regarded as being the most rich source of human condition, knowledge and experience as any dramatist who’s ever written or may ever write. And he says it in a way that goes directly to the heart and to the mind. He speaks to the human being in a way that I don’t think any dramatist ever has. I think Shakespeare himself was puzzled as to where it all came. I don’t think he knew.”

The cast of “The Winter’s Tale” includes many veterans of Shakespeare’s work. Along with Tom Story and Ted van Griethuysen, the cast includes Sean Arbuckle, Todd Bartels, Brent Carver, Mark Harelik, Nancy Robinette, Heather Wood and Hannah Yelland. Original music was composed by Nico Muhly, a rising star whose first opera is a co-commission by the Metropolitan Opera and the Lincoln Center Theater Opera/Theater Commissions Program in a co-production with the English National Opera. Along with Muhly, music direction is handled by Ellis Ludwig-Leone, sound by Matt Tierney, lighting design by Christopher Akerlind, costume design by David Zinn, choreography by Camille A. Brown; and set design by Christine Jones. Casting was done by Laura Stanczyk, CSA; and Gillian Lane-Plescia served as vocal coach. Rebecca Taichman, who previously directed “Sleeping Beauty Wakes” and “Twelfth Night” at McCarter returns as director.

“It’s just a team of really creative people and a great group of actors,” said Story. “It feels like that thing that you live for that you don’t get to do that much... a real collaboration with exciting people who are all at the top of their game!”

When attending the show, be sure to arrive early for a special 20-minute discussion led by a member of McCarter’s artistic staff. These discussions will help you learn more about the themes and style of the play, information about production elements, and more. Each discussion takes place 45 minutes before the performance.

“I think Shakespeare’s still relevant because he said things about humanity in a way that no one before him or since has been able to say,” said Story. “It is mind boggling and no matter how much work you’ve done, you’re constantly surprised by the insight he had into the human condition. I’m always amazed that this one person was able to understand so many different emotions and so many different kinds of people. I think because of that, he will live forever.”

“The Winter’s Tale” by William Shakespeare, directed by Rebecca Taichman, on stage at McCarter Theatre Center in the Matthews Theatre Auditorium April 2 - April 21, 2013.

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