By Wendy Rosenfield
for the Inquirer
Here’s irony for you: for its production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, People’s Light and Theatre Company imported Scottish director Guy Hollands, and Hollands, in turn, presents the play as a winter festival celebrating community, featuring locally crafted design elements and edible treats. It’s sort of a riff on this script’s own sheep-shearing feast, during which area farmers and tradesmen celebrate the coming of spring by wearing masks, singing and performing. And in many ways, the gimmick works.
A short pre-curtain green show featuring the cast on an outdoor stage under tin can lamps and beside a warming fire, general admission tickets, and post-show pagan revelry, including a burning of the “Witch of Winter” (a wire-and-straw sculpture) all add to a sense of togetherness. This particular work is Shakespeare’s “kitchen sink” play, with two very different halves (a winter tragedy in which jealous King Leontes accuses his faithful wife, Hermione, of cuckoldry, followed by a spring romance between royal offspring) cleaved by his famous and most famously tragicomic stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear.” The Winter’s Tale needs all the unity it can get.
But Hollands also indulged in a bit of kitchen sinking. Philip Witcomb’s sets and costumes evoke, simultaneously, a traveling carnival and Victorian junk shop. Old-timey circus banners flank parts of the newly-built thrust stage, while over the proscenium hangs a bough laden with taxidermied trophies, antlers and seasonal greenery. In the first act, Leontes’ castle is constructed of haphazardly nailed two-by-fours, and characters wear the kind of musty men’s fur coats and women’s mutton-chop sleeves that would suit one of Edward Gorey’s decrepit mansions. Hollands may have imported a bit of the vibe from his home base, Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre, said to be haunted by a ghost that looks significantly like the later incarnation of wronged Hermione, and leans toward a mystical reading of the play’s later events (which I won’t reveal here, just in case).
Peter Pryor’s Autolycus, a scoundrel who also functions as a Brecht/Weill/Swordfishtrombones-era Tom Waitsian bandleader of sorts, binds together as many of these disparate elements as he can, his down and dirty barking one of the production’s signature satisfactions. Christopher Patrick Mullen’s half-mad Leontes and Nancy McNulty’s damaged Hermione also resonate. But Hollands’ vision, at its core, chooses style over substance. Lucky for him and for People’s Light, he has phenomenal style.
Playing at: People’s Light and Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern. Through Sun., Mar. 3. Tickets: $25 to $45. Information: 610-644-3500 or www.PeoplesLight.org