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‘The Winter’s Tale’: Shakespeare is back in full force at TTT

Ten Thousand Things has a way of making 400-year-old Elizabethan English understandable – not by changing it, but by changing us, the audience. Our ears open wider. Our imaginations start firing.

Stephen Epp, Mo Perry and Stephanie Bertumen
Stephen Epp, Mo Perry and Stephanie Bertumen in "The Winter’s Tale."
Photo by Paula Keller

During Marcela Lorca’s first season as artistic director, Ten Thousand Things Theater did not stage a Shakespeare play. Shakespeare had been a regular thing at TTT during founder Michelle Hensley’s tenure. We were worried, a little. Because not only had TTT produced Shakespeare regularly, it had done so brilliantly, blazingly well.

Marcela Lorca
Marcela Lorca
It has been said that TTT produces the best Shakespeare of any theater in our community. Without large casts, built sets, or professional lighting and sound design. Without even a stage.

TTT starts each run in correctional facilities, homeless shelters, women’s shelters, low-income senior centers and other places where people don’t have easy access to the arts. Many have never seen a play before. Everything needed for a TTT production must fit in a van. Costumes must slip on and off quickly, since actors play multiple roles.

After its free community performances, the theater plays to paying audiences at Open Book in Minneapolis and, starting in 2018-19, North Garden Theater in St. Paul. North Garden has a stage, but TTT ignores it, leaving the curtain drawn and playing, as usual, on the floor, surrounded by an audience in rows of stacking chairs.

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When Lorca’s second season was announced in April, first on the list was Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.” This is one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” The first half is darkness, the second light. The first half is tragic, the second comic, with a miracle thrown in. If you read a synopsis, it doesn’t make sense. Why would a king suddenly believe that his virtuous and pregnant wife is carrying on with his best friend? How could the king’s jealousy and its awful consequences resolve into a happy ending?

Stephen Epp and Shá Cage in "The Winter’s Tale."
Photo by Paula Keller
Stephen Epp and Shá Cage in "The Winter’s Tale."
The answer, it seems, is Time itself. In “The Winter’s Tale,” it heals all wounds and even brings the dead back to life.

Lorca’s masterful direction, a cast of powerful, passionate actors, Peter Vitale’s music (performed live), Sonya Berlovitz’s costumes and Nick Golfis’ minimalist sets have combined to create real magic. At North Garden Theater on Saturday night, we were swept away by the language, the acting, the music and the movement. Shakespeare is back in full force at TTT.

The language (with a few noticeable exceptions, including the playful admonition to “Get a room!”) is still the Bard’s. TTT has a way of making 400-year-old Elizabethan English understandable – not by changing it, but by changing us, the audience. Our ears open wider. Our imaginations start firing. Five minutes into one of TTT’s Shakespeares, it’s as if the language is no big deal.

That experience is one reason to see “The Winter’s Tale.” There are many more.

Reasons to go

Stephen Epp gives a magnificent performance as Sicily’s King Leontes. His sudden turn from a happy, loving husband and friend to a tyrant consumed by jealousy – underscored by Vitale’s music – is riveting. His rage is volcanic and terrifying. When he finally realizes how wrong he has been, his grief is shattering. He sinks to the ground and tries to crawl away, but there’s nowhere to go. He circles and curls and breaks.

Epp also appears as a silly shepherdess in a ridiculous wig, and as the front part of a bear. (“The Winter’s Tale” is the Shakespeare play with the famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear.”)

Shá Cage is such a strong presence in any play that it’s hard to take your eyes off her. She exudes integrity, making her perfect for the role of Queen Hermione, wrongly accused of something she would never do. Even when pleading her case, she’s majestic.

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Mo Perry is fierce as Paulina, a loyal friend to Hermione. She also plays a kind-hearted shepherd. Paulina’s husband, Antigonus, is played by Karen Wiese-Thompson, one of our greatest local actors, seen earlier this year in the Guthrie’s “Guys and Dolls” as Chicago gangster Big Jule. Wiese-Thompson also takes on, with gusto, the comic role of the wily pickpocket and conman Autolycus.

As Bohemia’s regal King Polixenes, James Craven is baffled by his former friend Leontes’ accusations. Told by his cupbearer, Camillo – well-played by William Sturdivant, who later returns as a clown – that Leontes has ordered his death, he makes a hasty exit. Later, in disguise, he tries to talk his son, Prince Florizel, a very appealing Christopher Jenkins, out of marrying Perdita, an adorable Stephanie Bertumen.

Polixenes thinks Perdita is a shepherd’s daughter. He’s wrong. As the young lovers, Jenkins and Bertumen are luminous, lost in their own world as the play swirls around them, communicating in tender glances and gestures. Jenkins also makes a convincing jailer for Hermione after she is imprisoned by Leontes.

Christopher Jenkins and Stephanie Bertumen in "The Winter’s Tale."
Photo by Paula Keller
Christopher Jenkins and Stephanie Bertumen in "The Winter’s Tale."
And that’s the cast, except for Cristina Florencia Castro, who plays several smaller roles exceedingly well: a lady in waiting to Hermione, a Sicilian lord, the girlfriend to Sturdivant’s clown, a mariner. Just nine actors play 20 roles, plus appearing when needed in the ensemble.

At one point, during a thunderstorm scene, Craven joins Vitale and bangs on a frame drum. There’s a lot of drumming in “The Winter’s Tale,” some signifying doom. High strings message Leontes’ growing delusion. Vitale’s array of instruments, along with keyboard, percussion, and accordion, includes a harp and bells.

Golfis’ set pieces and props are stools, crates, and simple signposts. Two long wood rails turn the audience into jurors for Hermione’s trial. Sometimes a TTT set can remind you of children making forts out of blankets and chairs.

And sometimes the costumes look like rags, hastily stitched together out of whatever is available. Of course, they aren’t – not when Berlovitz is your costume designer. Fabrics worn by one character, and colors, relate to other characters. Every decision is deliberate.

At a talkback following Saturday’s performance, Epp commented on the costumes. “Having costumes that aren’t too finished, that look half-done, says something about the theater we do. It’s about humanity and character, not production values.” Sturdivant pointed out that the costumes are environmentally responsible, Bertumen that “they go through a lot.”

TTT is known for interacting with its audience. In a TTT production, the lights are always on, everyone can see everyone else, and the cast and audience are close to each other, sometimes just a few feet or inches away. In response to a comment, Perry said, “Making direct eye contact with the audience is my favorite thing. We make the audience storytellers, too. You are the party guests, the court, the people from the town.” Sturdivant said, “It’s one big, breathing world. Everything is pulsing together. All the hearts are beating at the same time.”

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Lorca, who recently received the 2019 Zelda Fichandler Award, a prestigious honor in American theater, told us “The Winter’s Tale” was the first Shakespeare play she had ever directed. If this is what she does out of the box, we can’t wait for her next Shakespeare.

We weren’t able to see “The Winter’s Tale” until late in the run. Only four more performances remain at North Garden Theater. Then it moves to the Sheldon Theatre in Red Wing for the final three performances. FMI and tickets (prices vary by venue).