Pawtucket's Gamm Theatre is closing its season with one of William Shakespeare's most difficult to do plays.
But Bill Gale says this version of “The Winter's Tale” is the best he's ever seen.
Under rigorous direction by Fred Sullivan Jr., this play -- which could be called Shakespeare's “curve ball” -- becomes a delight, a musical joy praising the best in our world.
That said, it is also true that this delightful turn-about begins as a tale of terror. We watch as a king simply loses his mind, becomes a killer of babies, a ruin-er of lives as he slides into madness.
“A sad tale's best for winter,'' one character says. But then – bingo – the Bard changes all. From ferocious cold it's suddenly spring. There's a flower-filled engagement wrapping all of us in warmth, and salvation. What has been a story of loss becomes a tale of redemption. All's well that ends well, you know.
But making this most changeable of plays work is a real challenge, one the Gamm has met straight on. Sullivan's direction is monumental. This production grips your attention.
That first act (the first three in Shakespeare's original) is coiled into neck-squeezing fear. It's a telling of all that can be wrong in any era, any place. And this Gamm production tells it fully.
Much of the credit for that goes to artistic director, Tony Estrella who plays the mighty king Leontes as a man who's sorrowfully losing his senses. In the best performance of the year, Estrella shows us a human becoming in-human and knowing it but being unable to control it. You cannot take your eyes away from him as he proceeds to murderous madness.
The rest of the 17 actor cast is often equal to Estrella. That would include Sullivan himself. Not satisfied with directing all this, he plays in the sunny, music-filled second act as a hilarious pick-pocketing street guy who, for goodness sake, literally chews the scenery in a hilarious turn.
Among the women, Jeanine Kane is a vibrant, strong noble trying desperately to prevent horrors. Karen Carpenter is quietly splendid as Leontes' Queen; a majestic women in a terrible situation. Nora Eschenheimer is sweet and wonderful as a young woman trying to make her way. In fact, these three and others partially turn this “Winter's Tale” into a female-led play, something unusual in Shakespeare-land.
Others, particularly Richard Donelly as a nobleman trying and largely succeeding at being noble, was strong. He, by the way, plays the character who follows the great and goofy Shakespeare stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” And this production actually shows a raggedy animal who spends all of about three seconds on stage. I've never seen that in “Winter's Tale” before.
But, then again, in 40 years of reviewing theater I've never seen a “Winter's Tale” anywhere near as good as this one. It faces Shakespeare's challenge head on. The result is both powerful and plaintive.
In an essay in the program, the Gamm's resident scholar, Jennifer Madden, posits that Shakespeare “in all his visceral glory is neither archaic nor elitist but alive and available for us all.”
In this memorable “Winter's Tale” that is surely the truth.
“The Winter's Tale” continues at the Gamm Theatre through May 29th. Bill Gale reviews the performing arts for Rhode Island Public Radio.