To open its 2007-’08 drama series, Princeton University’s Program in Theater and Dance has chosen a late and problematic play of Shakespeare’s, “The Winter’s Tale.” A story that tells of the undoing of the social order brought on by an attack of jealousy that seems to have been sparked by a psychotic episode, “The Winter’s Tale,” usually referred to as a romance, does not fall comfortably into the standard Shakespearean categories of comedy, tragedy, and history. The cast includes 11 undergraduates; one esteemed faculty member, Paul Muldoon, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, who is also head of the Program in Theater and Dance; and Muldoon’s 11-year-old son, Asher. The result is a striking production of a difficult play. The Program in Theater and Dance is part of the University’s Center for the Arts, recently christened the Peter B. Lewis Center for the Arts, honoring major donor Peter Lewis.
This production chooses to look at the play through the lens of the main character’s memory. Leontes, King of Sicily, whose seemingly unmotivated jealous suspicions unleash a rash of dreadful consequences, is played by two actors. One is an undergraduate, Adam Zivkovic, whom many may remember for his striking performance as the false Dmitri in last season’s “Boris Gudonov.” The other, identified in the program as Old Leontes, is Paul Muldoon, who remains onstage throughout the production, sitting in a cluttered room on the upper story of the striking two-story set, often just observing the action, sometimes commenting on it, sometimes even moving it forward, but always physically embodying the idea that this play takes place in the attic of memory.
“The Winter’s Tale” is directed by Tracy Bersley, a New York-based director and choreographer who is on the faculty of the Program in Theater and Dance. In addition to setting the play in some unspecified time closer to our day than Shakespeare’s, she has chosen to use some audio techniques usually associated with cinema and TV. Voices are sometimes heard only through amplified sound, at times using the echoes associated with horror movies or dream sequences. At one point fast forward is used, unfortunately making it impossible to make out the words.
In a scene visually reminiscent of the trial scene in last year’s McCarter production of “Mrs. Packard,” Bersley has Leontes serve as prosecutor, judge, and jury for a trial of his unfairly accused wife.
Spoiler alert, if you’re familiar with the play: The ending, too, has been tweaked. As old Leontes goes cheerfully off with his rediscovered wife, young Leontes climbs the stairs to the attic memory room. In place of Shakespeare’s happy ending, the audience is left with an ambiguous solution that might even smack of novelty for novelty’s sake.
Members of the first-rate cast include Sara-Ashley Bischoff as the falsely accused Hermione; Kut Akdogan as Polixenes, King of Bohemia and Leontes’ best friend until the misunderstanding; Becca Foresman, the evil monk in last year’s “Boris,” as Paulina, who plays a major role in straightening out the mess; Sam Zetumer, Shuisky in last year’s “Boris,” as Camillo, advisor to Leontes who leaves him for Polixenes when Leontes goes berserk; and, as Leonte’s young son, Asher Muldoon. The young Muldoon handles both his lines and his actions most impressively.
Undergraduates Paul Bangiola, Will Ellerbe, Jessica Harrop, Irfan Kherani, Heather May, Georgina Sherrington, and Mary Cait Walthall round out the cast. The level is high, and the language usually comes through — some of us always forget how much fun it is simply to listen to Shakespeare’s words — but unfortunately, it is not always easy to catch those words. It is not just the speeded up and electronically altered words that are difficult to hear; although the students handle Shakespeare’s rhythms skillfully, several of them let their voices drop too far as they got to the ends of their sentences.
The set, designed by Jeffrey van Vensor, who works frequently with Bersley, is striking. Two stories high, it features two side walls of doors outlining the space. The doors are tied into the emphasis on memory; as the closets of memory, they open frequently to reveal people and incidents from the past. Rear stage in the center, on the second floor, is Old Leonte’s cluttered haven. Since no choreographer is listed in the program, one must assume that the director is responsible for the extremely graceful way the cast clears items from the stage when they are no longer needed. The costumes, designed by Brad L. Scoggins, make it clear that the time period is not Shakespeare’s but could be seen as placed anywhere from the late 19th century to the recent past.
Despite my reservations, I would certainly recommend a visit to the Berlind.
“The Winter’s Tale,” Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, November 15 to 17, 8 p.m., Princeton University’s Program in Theater and Dance, the Berlind Theater at McCarter, 91 University Place. 609-258-2787.