Shakespeare gets the Texas treatment in the Alley Theatre’s production of The Winter’s Tale. The comedy, just the second work directed by new Alley Artistic Director Rob Melrose, features downtown Houston and a King Ranch-like locale.
For a comedy, Winter’s Tale has some rather tragic elements. King Leontes accuses his pregnant wife, Hermione, of having an affair with his best friend, King Polixenes, and says the child she’s carrying is illegitimate. After her supposed lover escapes the country, Hermione is thrown in prison where she gives birth to a baby girl, Perdita. Leontes orders the infant to be abandoned in the wilderness.
The rest of the play follows what happens to Perdita and her eventual return to King Leontes’ court.
Originally published in 1623, The Winter’s Tale is nonetheless relevant to today’s audiences, says cast member Tiffany Rachelle Stewart. “The ways that people love, the ways that people hurt each other, they did it a hundred years ago, and they do it today.”
Stewart, based in New York City where she previously worked with Melrose, plays Queen Hermione. It’s a difficult role—a loving wife not only unjustly accused and imprisoned, but who has her newborn ripped from her arms. Hermione, says Stewart, doesn’t have full ownership over herself as a woman. Her body can be owned, managed, pointed at, punished, and shamed by her husband, King Leontes.
Still, Stewart refuses to play Hermione as a victim. “Just because she doesn’t have much power in the world the play’s set in, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have any power,” Stewart tells us. “She’s put in prison and she can’t free herself but she does have the power to free her reputation, her honor.”
A Winter’s Tale is a comedy, remember. And true to form, it has a happy ending, though under Melrose’s direction, it’s not the completely carefree, idyllic ending as seen in some productions.
“The air stays thick because it has to,” she says. “Real women, they don’t get their lives wrapped up with a bow. So we, the characters, don’t get everything wrapped up with a bow. However these two people go on, the air has to hold that complication.”
Perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by bear,” appears in The Winter’s Tale. (The man sent to abandon the baby in the wilderness is chased by the creature.) Showing the action is problematic for most productions. Should an actor wear a bear suit? Should it be implied with a growl? Or seen in shadow?
Stewart won’t tell us how Melrose solves the problem but she does say the audience will be shocked. “The way it’s realized—I jump every time it happens.”
Sept 18—Oct 13. Tickets from $28. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. 713-220-5700. More info and tickets at alleytheatre.org.