“The Winter’s Tale,” which opened yesterday and runs until Saturday at the Yale Repertory Theater, progresses like the fucked-up dream you had the other night, the one that you’re convinced means something by sheer virtue of its enigmatic weirdness. It starts out normal enough, but as it builds to a climax, it morphs into a surrealist romp full of body paint and glam rockers and bears. Yet somehow, despite your confusion and disorientation as you awaken with a jolt and remind yourself, clutching at your pillow, that you’re still safe and sound in your bed, you can’t help but feel that the whole thing wasn’t a nightmare at all, but a glorious adventure through your subconscious.
The show, which is described on the front of the playbill with what can only be a mix of winking irony and deep homage as “a play by William Shakespeare” is as much a play by director Cooper Lewis ’11 as it is by Old Willy himself. Shakespeare provides the frame, but the pervasive strangeness of Lewis’ vision provides the meat. And despite being a bit gamey, it’s pretty damn good.
It’s no secret that modern adaptations of Shakespeare have a disappointing tendency to be plodding affairs, either because they are too loyal to the source text and therefore inaccessible to a modern audience, or because they are so avant-garde and self-indulgent that they misplace the text entirely. Despite Lewis’ weirdness (and this is by far the strangest play I have seen in a long time, Shakespeare or not), he brilliantly manages to straddle the line between these two extremes for the majority of the play. While some of the original material, namely the interpretive dance between set changes and the indie ballads that are sprinkled throughout, can get a bit much at times, at its core this is essentially solid theater, plain and simple.
“The Winter’s Tale” is a whirlwind of jealous kings, mistaken identities, mischievous scamps and hilarious comic relief, but the plot thankfully takes a backseat to the sheer fantasticality of it all. The ensemble does its job, but almost all of the lead and supporting roles shine. Lizzie Donger ’12 is a powerhouse as Paulina; she explodes with rage and moans with agony to equally riveting effect. Tom Sanchez ’12 and Michael Rose ’13 consistently hit their marks as the hilarious duo of clown and shepherd. Willa Fitzgerald ’13 plays Queen Hermione to the T with a feminine boldness and poise that is captivating to behold. Jacob Liberman ’10, as Leontes, is resplendent with Bowie-esque theatricality. I may not have completely understood the artistic choices (or even the plot) at certain points during the play, but the whole affair moves swiftly forward with such confidence in its own wackiness that I really didn’t care.
This is definitely not a show for the Shakespeare purists out there, and while it is debatable whether Lewis’ artistic liberty oversteps its bounds at certain points throughout this three-hour mindfuck, it demands its theatrical legitimacy with such persuasive seduction that your enjoyment is almost inevitable. I may not have a clue how any of this craziness was devised, but I sure as hell had a good time watching it.