Shakespeare, Statues & Bears, Oh My! ‘The Winter’s Tale’ Opens at West Side Theater

Elizabeth Belonzi as Hermione and Terence MacSweeny as Leontes

Man-eating bears, people turned to statues, pastoral whimsy–the Actors Shakespeare Company of New Jersey’s (ASCNJ) latest production, The Winter’s Tale, will have a little bit of something to offer for everyone as it kicks off this weekend.

As many Shakespeare fans know, the show is known for being considered by some a “problem play” (for its mix of tragedy and comedy) as well as the source of the Bard’s most famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

In the story, King Leontes of Sicilia becomes convinced that his wife, Hermione, and his friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia, are having an affair and tries to murder his friend and accuses his pregnant wife of infidelity. This leads to her public humiliation at a trial which ends with Leontes discovering the innocence of his wife, who gives birth to a daughter whom he sends away to some desolate place. The stress of the ordeal kills their son Mamillius and after the trial, Leontes finds himself mourning the loss of his son, wife and daughter.

The daughter, Perdita, grows up as a shepherd girl and after sixteen years, falls in love with Prince Florizel, the son of Polixenes. Then begins a new chapter (the “pastoral act” of the play) that eventually leads to reconciliation, rebirth and new beginnings for all.

Artistic Director and Producer Colin Ryan, who also plays peddler, vagabond, and pickpocket Autolycus, says ASCNJ chose the show, one of Shakespeare’s less frequently performed plays, because of its varied topics and mass appeal.

“There are incredibly wrenching moments of drama but it also has really wild, fun, wacky rustic comedy, singing, dancing, comedy and young love. There are moments all about psychological realism but also some magic, fantasy, fairy tale things,” he says. “I love when Shakespeare gives us a smorgasbord of feelings, styles and emotions.”

Ryan says he believes audiences will particularly have an interesting time relating (or not relating) to lead character Leontes, who is seized by jealousy that he plants in his own mind.

“Everyone has had those feelings–whether it’s jealousy or another negative emotion–where it’s just whispering in your ear, but it’s a challenge for the audience to see Leontes do such horrible things and brings up the real question of forgiveness,” says Ryan.

“There are a lot of questions in the play. I think everybody is trying to do the right thing; there’s no villain and everyone believes they’re a hero in their story…But how do you do the right thing in difficult circumstances and deal with conflicts with someone else? That’s a challenge in real life and something people come to every day.”

While Ryan admits that the play isn’t as popular as other works by the Bard like Othello, Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he says that gives the company a chance to produce it as if it never had been performed before.

“I think the best way to approach any Shakespeare title is to think of it as being brand new for everyone seeing it,” he says. “Even with the more popular plays, we see that people think this is going on in one scene, but what’s really going on is this. It’s easy to do that with The Winter’s Tale because it will be a lot of people’s first time seeing it, which is a real strength.”

The most exciting part of the production has been working with director Bethany Reeves and the 10-actor cast to create two completely different worlds–Sicilia and Bohemia–and bringing the magic of living statues and bears to life, Ryan says.

“I hope people are entertained,” he says. “It’s such a fun play, especially with all the Bohemia stuff, the choreography, the live music and great clowns–it’s such a warm, earthy play!”

The Winter’s Tale will be performed on Fridays at 7:30 pm and weekends at 3 pm at the New Jersey City University West Side Theater, located at 285 West Side Ave. The show begins with a preview performance today, April 4, and runs through 21. Tickets are $20, $15 for seniors and $10 for students. School groups can book Wednesday and Thursday matinees by calling 201-822-1623. Bard Banter, a group discussion between the audience and cast, will be held after matinees on April 6, 13 and 20. For more information and tickets, visit the ASCNJ website.

Photos by JHarps Photography

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Summer Dawn Hortillosa

is a freelance arts and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in the Jersey City Independent, The Jersey Journal, the International and other publications. She is also a creative writer and theatrical director.