Gryan Woods, Grace Pheiffer, Anna Tunnicliff, and Susan Perrin-Sallak in The Winter's Tale Saturday's Genesius Guild presentation of The Winter's Tale never quite found its tone, but it's hard to be too bothered by that, because I'm not convinced that Shakespeare's play ever finds its tone, either. The bard's work is an unusual, somewhat off-putting blend of high and low comedy, aching tragedy, and pastoral romance, and I can only assume that pulling it off in a way that makes sense requires an extraordinary amount of finesse. Director Patti Flaherty's production didn't display this sort of acumen, yet to its credit, the show was never less than pleasant. Whether The Winter's Tale is meant to be pleasant is another matter entirely.

Clearly, the director appeared happy to concede the play's peculiar, make-believe quality from the start. During his pre-show announcements, the Guild's executive director, Doug Tschopp, insisted that The Winter's Tale's first half was something of a "psychological drama." That description, though, didn't jibe with Flaherty's introduction to the tale, which found a young page (Kylie Jansen) crossing the stage with a banner reading "Once upon a time ... ," trailed by an adorable little girl (Hannah King) who resembled a butterfly.

This lighthearted, fairy-tale opener was quickly followed by a blithely flirtatious exchange between Hermione (Grace Pheiffer, reminiscent of a young Heather Graham) and Polixenes (Gary Atkins), while Hermione's husband, King Leonetes (Bryan Woods), worked himself into a fit of plot-goosing jealousy. But even here, the production appeared to be eschewing a dark side; Pheiffer's and Atkins' badinage felt too insubstantial to be taken as a threat, and Woods seemed less anguished than irrationally pissy.

Subsequent scenes, however, found Woods embracing his character's vehemence full-force, and similarly emotional readings were delivered by Susan Perrin-Sallak, whose steely, bitterly sarcastic turn as Lady Paulina could easily have confused audiences into thinking that she was ruler of the kingdom.

The tonal vacillations didn't stop there, as Flaherty and her actors also found room for some rather unanticipated baggy-pants comedy. (Also, perhaps, some unintentional comedy: When Paulina brought in Hermione's newborn daughter, we obviously weren't meant to believe that the prop doll was an actual infant, but I still didn't expect it to be heedlessly plopped down - twice - as if the child were a bag of groceries.) The scene of a messenger bolting after delivering bad news was awfully broad, and when audience favorite Earl Strupp made his cameo, the silliness reached a zenith; not one to let a paucity of dialogue stop him, a hunched-over Strupp performed with a limp, a slight speech impediment, and an eye-patch. (For a brief moment, the play turned into Rowan Atkinson's Winter's Tale.)

Bryan Woods, Susan Perrin-Sallak, and Grace Pheiffer in The Winter's Tale And so it continued into the second half, with some legitimately passionate diatribes - such as Atkins' castigation of Polixenes' son, played by Jonathan Kiwala - popping up alongside goofy comic bits, featherweight romantic encounters, and sardonically sage asides by the roguish Autolycus (Scott Tunnicliff). By the time young Jansen returned with her " ... And they lived happily ever after" banner, we'd certainly seen a little bit of everything in The Winter's Tale. But what, exactly, had we seen?

What this production was lacking, it seems, was a sense of cohesiveness - a way to get from style A to styles B, C, and D without making the tonal shifts feel abrupt - that the cast, as a whole, didn't deliver. Too many actors sounded and looked uncomfortable about being there (evidenced by the sotto voce readings and their tendency to shift their weight when standing), and there were too many of those heart-stopping pauses when performers stared at each other blankly, and you couldn't tell which of them was missing their cue, but you knew for sure that someone was. Plus, the production was criminally short on reactions; face after face revealed nothing until it was time for them to deliver lines, at which point they briefly came to life ... and promptly reverted to a stone face when their turn to speak was over.

Thank goodness, then, for the show's many high points. Jake Posateri was especially fine - his lunkheaded shepherd a delightful Shakespearean fool whom the actor played with clueless relish - and the thoughtful readings of Mike Schmidt (whose reactions are impressively thought-out) and Bob Hanske (who exits, pursued by a bear) lent the production some variety. Flaherty's stage compositions, particularly during the idyllic sheep-shearing scene, were oftentimes lovely. And Ellen Dixon's magnificent costumes - the best I've yet seen at Genesius Guild this summer - were practically in a class by themselves; you could attend The Winter's Tale not understanding a word of English, and still have a pretty terrific time. Occasionally, maybe even a better time than the rest of us.


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