Shakespeare in the Arb presenting a summer production of 'The Winter's Tale'
photo by Gail McCormick
“But there’s really nothing in the play (about winter) except for a line by the young prince: ‘A sad tale is best for winter,’” said Mendeloff. “ And perhaps the beginning is usually set in the winter, but it doesn’t need to be. So I got over that, because I think the other benefits of doing the play in the Arb were stronger than the reasons not to.”
Of course, with loads of rainfall and unseasonably cold temperatures plaguing Mendeloff and her actors this spring, May has been (appropriately?) more winter-like than usual.
“We rehearse outside 3 days a week, and we have had to have over half, even three-quarters, of them inside the Reader Center, which is challenging,” said Mendeloff. “It is a big play—lots of characters, and a pastoral section that is very dependent on being in the actual setting. We are doing three dances, two courtly ones and one peasant dance, and these are not easy to fit into our rehearsal room, which is also our costume and prop storage area. But I have a good group of actors and we are moving along.”
Plus, it’s a big group, since Mendeloff double-cast nearly all the roles (“I had a lot of good actors come out for auditions,” said Mendeloff); and because the show (and the audience) traditionally “travels” on foot to different areas of Nichols Arboretum throughout the show, to witness different scenes in different settings, it’s been particularly challenging to experiment with this year’s chosen sites.
But all this hasn’t dampened Mendeloff’s affection for the play, which tells the story of a king who sends his pregnant wife to persuade a visiting king (and close friend) to extend his visit. When the queen succeeds, her husband irrationally grows convinced that his wife and his friend are having an affair. Consequently, the visiting king flees into hiding; the wife is imprisoned, and reportedly dies after hearing news of her son’s death; and the baby she bears is “delegitimized” and banished. 16 years later, the surviving characters’ paths cross again, and past injustices are finally addressed.“It is one of Shakespeare's late romances, and it is really a complete three-act tragedy, a pastoral comedy, and a romance all in one,” said Mendeloff, who also noted the appeal of the play’s 3 compelling female leads (Queen Hermione, her lady-in-waiting Paulina, and her daughter Perdita) as well as jealous king Leontes, whom she compares to other towering Shakespeare figures (Lear, MacBeth, and Othello). “ But (Leontes) plays his own Iago, and that struggle within his mind is fascinating. I love that the play deals with the reviving benefits of nature; that it has magical elements and that it really is a ‘tale’ - like a fairy tale, full of heroes, and villains, and something like a happy ending. It’s a very Christian play in many ways. The dead can come back, wounds can be healed, and losses can be overcome.”
One of the first things that inspired Mendeloff’s deep affection for “Tale” was a Margaret Jowett novel that Mendeloff read at age 8, called “Candidate for Fame,” which focuses on a young actress who plays Perdita at the Drury Lane Theatre during the Restoration.
But also, while a grad student at Yale Drama School, Mendeloff directed a production of “Tale” that she never got to see, due to health issues. “So it felt like a piece of unfinished business to me,” said Mendeloff.
While doing research for her current production, Mendeloff learned that the main story seems to have been inspired by the relationship between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn (whose daughter, Elizabeth, was “delegitimized” following her mother’s death); and the character of Leontes appears to be a critique of the autocratic style of King James.
And while you might think that “Tale” marks a turn away from the bard’s lighter comedies—Shakespeare in the Arb has previously presented “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “As You Like It,” and “Love’s Labors Lost,” among others—Mendeloff is quick to point out that even Shakespeare’s silliest fare is haunted by violence and dark undertones.
“The balance (in ‘Tale’) is a little different, in that all of the heavy stuff happens in the first 3 acts,” Mendeloff said. “But every Shakespeare play has a level of injustice in it, and tyrants who overstep their bounds.”