Shakespeare for the Masses posted an announcement for its upcoming show on Facebook. It began like this: “What better way to say goodbye to winter than to watch its tail? ‘The Winter’s Tale,’ March 18 and 19 at the Vineyard Playhouse.” This should give you a hint of the level of gleeful silliness to be had this weekend at the Playhouse.
“It took us a long time to figure out how to play around with this one,” admits Nicole Galland, co-creator of the irreverent off-season theatre troupe. “We’d been talking about doing ‘Winter’s Tale’ for at least a year, but we kept putting it off because it’s a huge undertaking — it’s challenging enough to do the play straight, let alone riff on it. But then one of our actresses (Sasha London-Thompson) told us she was pregnant — as is the queen at the start of the play — and that was it. We decided, hey, we have a real live pregnant lady, let’s exploit her! It’s that kind of profound and classy thinking that informs our art.”
“The Winter’s Tale” is the story of Leontes, King of Sicilia, and his beautiful (pregnant) wife, Hermione. Leontes becomes consumed with paranoid jealousy, believing Hermione to be having an affair with his best friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia. Polixenes leaves town in a hurry, Hermione gives birth in prison (“Sasha won’t be doing that, though,” Ms. Galland assures us), and Leontes puts Hermione on trial for adultery. Hermione defends herself eloquently, and is cleared of all wrong-doing by the god Apollo, via his Delphic Oracle — or, in this version, his Magic 8-Ball.
But Leontes ignores Apollo and orders the death of his newborn daughter, believing she is a bastard. This is followed by a Series of Unfortunate Events, usually involving people dying off-stage.
One of those deaths represents a famous in-joke among Shakespeare fans. The Bard almost never included stage directions, but in the case of one doomed lord, he specified, “Exit, pursued by a bear.” At press time, Ms. Galland and her partner Chelsea McCarthy were still auditioning bears for this infamous cameo appearance.
After the bear dines on the gentleman, the story skips ahead 16 years and changes tone abruptly. What had been a tightly knit, high-intensity “Law & Order” style drama relaxes into a rural Disney movie set in Bohemia (approximately the modern-day Czech Republic). The abandoned baby princess has been taken in by a kindly shepherd, and grown to be as lovely as Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty combined. She has caught the attention of the Prince of Bohemia, which mightily displeases the prince’s father — King Polixenes. Polixenes intervenes to stop his son’s amorous shenanigans in the middle of a sheep-shearing festival.
“The sheep-shearing was one of the reasons we hesitated taking on this project,” says Ms. Galland. “For starters, all the good sheep are in Chilmark, and they were planning to go to the Film Festival. Also, it’s just an incredibly silly scene, it goes on forever, its full of characters who have nothing to do with the plot, singing and dancing and flirting and, you know, generally acting like a bunch of Bohemians. Chelsea did an awesome first edit and chopped the scene in half, and then we just kept chipping away at it. We’d known all along we wanted to do some kind of cheap joke about their being Bohemian, so we’ve replaced the original song-and-dance bits with a beat poetry slam.”
Just as the audience adjusts to the bucolic fairy-tale quality of the story, the plot shifts back to Sicilia for the final act, which is one of the most surreal, highly-debated scenes Shakespeare ever wrote. “We can’t tell you anything else about that part,” says Ms. McCarthy. “That part, you’ve just got to come and see for yourself.”
As with all Shakespeare for the Masses shows, “The Winter’s Tale” features a narrator, played by Ms. Galland — who comments (“with an attitude,” she adds) throughout the action. She and Ms. McCarthy are joined onstage by Chris Roberts, Alexandra London-Thompson, Jamie Alley, Christopher Brophy, Jill Macy, Billy Meleady, Anna Ward, and Anna Yukevich. And, of course, a bear.
“The Winter’s Tale,” 7 pm, Thursday and Friday, March 18 and 19, Vineyard Playhouse, Vineyard Haven. Free; donations welcome. Running time is about an hour. For more information, call 508-693-6450; vineyardplayhouse.org.