A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler / Theater

A Singer’s Notes 23: Three from the Bard

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Jonathan Epstein as Leontes Jonathan Epstein as Leontes and Elizabeth Aspenlieder as Hermione in The Winter's Tale. Photo Kevin Sprague.
Jonathan Epstein as Leontes and Elizabeth Aspenlieder as Hermione in The Winter's Tale. Photo Kevin Sprague.

The Winter’s Tale is the finest play by Shakespeare which nobody knows. Form and content meet and marry in this play. Everything is focused in a concentrated and clear line. The poet had two dry runs before writing the tale. Pericles, one of the most popular plays of the 17th century, is a rough-hewn rollicking tale which finds its heroine converting lechers and being lusted after by her own father. Next up, in the trial of romances, is Cymbeline, a complex rambling play with too many resurrections. The rightness of the The Winter’s Tale takes us by surprise. The themes of the last plays: separation, fathers and daughters, emotional destruction and rebirthing, here seem to have found a shape which sears itself into the mind. The most played and latest of the romances, The Tempest, can seem almost valedictory after Winter’s Tale.

The play has two very difficult (impossible?) roles. Leontes, the anti-hero, must go from what would seem to be an uneasy peace in his marriage to maniacal jealousy in no time. His wife, Hermione, in a short role, must die, or at least seem to die, and find life again. The Leontes in Shakespeare and Company’s brave production is that actor who always makes you listen, Jonathan Epstein. I have the great admiration for the radical choice he made in the front end of the play. Once the fit was on him he began to enjamb the lines more and more often, then more and more violently until he was speaking a kind of too rapid prose that was almost pure sound. It was a flood, a torrent of words which rose and fell without regard for logic or even basic sense. More and more concentrated his speaking became until it was like a language I have never heard. Shakespeare’s words, but a modern existential bleakness and edge telescoping great raves of jealousy into a kind of profound nonsense verse. It was like Lear. So much for Sir Peter Hall’s dictum that the Shakespearean script is as sacrosanct as the Mozartian score, every pause, every mark of punctuation, demanding a proper delivery. Epstein’s proper delivery was excess, concentration, brilliance, noise. It was like a great beast in a cage, a cage itself revolving senselessly. It had absolutely no decorum. You could not stop listening to it.

Elizabeth Aspenlieder was the most believable Hermione I have seen. Her acting has lyricism and comes from the heart. So much of this role is conveyed when the actress is not speaking. Fear, shock, affection all hush each other when she is in the dock – some kind of believable return to life from stony silence must convince in the resurrection scene. Ms. Aspenlieder used the few lines the character has as an intensification of her own silence, making the role one which allowed us to hear and see something which was beyond hearing and seeing. It was the quietness of her despair which made us find the coming back to life believable. This was excellent.

I could have done with a lot more of Kelly Galvin in the fourth act. Her role, Perdita, is the real resurrector. When she suggests strewing her love with flowers, he laughs it off: “What — like a corpse?”   She answers: “No, like a bank, for love to lie and play on; Not like a corpse, or if– not to be buried, But quick, and in mine arms.” How Shakespearean it is for these lines to make us believe in the metaphysical power of this young woman, and at the same time give erotic nature equal billing. Perdita compares herself to Persephone, and she makes every situation she is in better, more honest, brighter, clearer. Bright and clear was what Ms. Galvin was. This is a young actress who like Mr. Epstein compels you to listen to her. Everything she does is sharp. You know exactly what she means. The fourth act should have been hers. Instead there were a lot of high-jinks — sometimes obliterating her few lines to no purpose. This is a soul-saving pastoral, not a romp in the grass.

This Winter’s Tale was a highlight of my summer.


Shakespeare and Company’s Richard the Third was a valiant effort to make a long play full of euphuistic speechifying and Marlovian rant move quickly. I can’t say that it did.  John Douglas Thompson tried valiantly in the title role to keep us with him. He has power, and his voice is beautiful. He is a virtuoso of words, but in the end it just seemed like words. The play is early. Shakespeare did not make a good Marlowe. He needed to wait a couple of more years to become Shakespeare. Good try, though.


Berkshire Theater Festival’s Macbeth was a subdued affair. It had a certain appeal. C. J. Wilson, the Macbeth, was physically imposing and seemed like he would at any moment start to speak powerfully. He rarely did. I heard the end as an almost carefree existentialism. Far from seeming to go at a breakneck pace, time being a central trope in this play, this performance seemed to just be there, all of it at the same time. Once the deed was done, there was only the quiet of insomnia and the vast empty whiteness of being. Yet, there was something there, as there always is when Eric Hill directs. It wasn’t a complete Macbeth by any means, but it had a singular clarity of despair, always tending toward silence and finally achieving it.

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