A Winter’s Tale… in feudal Japan

So lately a great deal of my time and energy has been taken up by a certain theatrical production here on the the Caltech campus. Today is the first day in a week that the largest part of my day hasn’t been spent at the theater rehearsing, building sets, performing, or just muddling about backstage brooding over my frustrations with the show. In this short respite from the storm of theatrical indulgence, my body and mind unwillingly decompressed, embracing their almost Brombdinagian fatigue.

But let me tell you about the show if only for the humor value. It is, after all, a comedy. The merits of the play itself (one of Shakespeare’s later and more experimental scripts) are debateable. The story concerns a irrationally jealous king who condemns his queen and orders their newborn daughter (whom he presumes was sired by his friend, king of another country) to be killed. The daughter is flitted away by a servant to the land of the other king where she is adopted by an old shepherd. Fast-forward 16 years. No joke, there is a short scene where Time is a character and comes out and says, in essence, fast-forward 16 years. The girl has now grown into a beautiful farmer’s daughter (it’s a type) and has fallen in love with the prince. Hyjinx ensue and in the end the queen comes back to life when a statue of her is magically reanimated, and everybody gets married (it’s a Shakespearean comedy, that’s how they all end). So, clearly there are some problems with the story.

My part in all of this craziness, since you asked, is the rogue who wanders about stealing purses, singing ballads, and generally having a good laugh at everyone elses expense.

The first major production choice, and the one from which all others stemed, was the decision to set the play in feudal Japan and incorporate visual elements of kibuke. To this end, there was an attempt to make the cast look somewhat homogeneic and a tad more eastern. Hair was died black, thick eyebrows were painted on. If it’s hard to see where I’m going with this, or why, it’s because I’m really not sure. This is not to say that setting the play in Japan doesn’t work, but having gone through the process and seen the result, I’m still not sure what it added to the play. The end product is Shakespeare in kimonos, nothing less and nothing more.

The second major choice, as I see it, was to play the largest parts of the work as a drama. Comedy is hard, no doubt, but the dramatic merits of the story outlined above are suspect at best. The comedy of the play is the sarcastic, obsurdist sort of wit that must be clean and quick and clever to work. While the language is often a barrier for audiences, that is the work of the performer, to be subtly expressive so that the semantic content of the speech is conveyed without regard to language and the words are left as a playground. Instead, the choice was made to seek comedy in melodrama.

more to come…


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