Arts theater review

Exit, pursued by a bear

MIT Shakespeare Ensemble presents The Winter’s Tale

The Winter's Tale
Directed by Arielle Lipshaw
Mar. 17–18 at 4 p.m., Mar. 19 at 4 p.m., Mar. 23–25 at 8 p.m.
La Sala de Puerto Rico

The first half of The Winter’s Tale concludes with one of the most famous and notoriously difficult stage directions in all of Shakespeare: Exit, pursued by a bear.

Every production of The Winter’s Tale interprets the instruction in its own way: as a man in a bear suit, a shadow seen in a flash of lightning, an evocative growl from offstage. Early productions may even have used live polar bears from King James I’s menagerie.

In the absence of live animals, the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble offers a clever and creative solution. The thing that mauls poor Antigonus (Raine Hasskew, ’17) is not a beast, but a plush white teddy bear in the arms of a ghost. Deceased young Prince Mamillius (Alicia Nimrick, ‘19) emerges silently from behind the curtain, his cherished toy clutched to his chest. He has the eerie, menacing innocence of a child from a horror film.

This sets up an amusing (if grotesque) contrast in the next scene, when the Prince’s disembodied foot flies across the stage, having been discarded by the gorged bear. In this way, Director Arielle Lipshaw strikes a balance between comedy and tragedy, appropriate for play that has historically eluded either genre.

The story begins when Leontes (Robert Thorpe II, ’18), King of Sicily, becomes convinced that his wife Hermione (Grace Kuffner, ’20) is having an affair with the king of Bohemia, Polixenes (Peter Duerst, ’18). Though his belief is completely ungrounded — as many of his friends try to remind him, no queen is more virtuous or loyal than Hermione — he persists, publicly shaming her. Believing their newborn daughter to be a bastard, he orders his servant (the hapless Antigonus) to abandon the baby on the coast of Bohemia. By the time the record is set straight, it is too late: Leontes’s only son, Mamillius, has died from stress after hearing the accusations made against his mother; Hermione has perished of heartbreak; and the child, Perdita, is lost.

Sixteen years later, Polixenes’s heir, Florizel (Raine Hasskew) has fallen in love with a beautiful young shepherd girl — Perdita (Alicia Nimrick). Trouble and antics ensue — Polixenes is unenthusiastic about the idea of bringing a lowly peasant into the family — and Florizel and Perdita eventually wind up in Sicily, where they meet the still-grieving Leontes and the truth about Perdita’s origin is revealed.

Lipshaw has modernized pieces of the story. Prince Florizel is now Princess Florizel, a change that provides a refreshing deviance from the traditional heterosexual relationships that are part and parcel of most Shakespearean romance. The score is considerably post-Shakespearean — expect to hear some Pink Floyd. But ultimately, it’s the acting that makes the play so enjoyable. Duerst’s disguised Polixenes, with his comically exaggerated manner and hunched back, is a delight to watch. And I could not help but pity Kuffner’s poor Hermione as she stood trial, futilely begging the man she loved to acknowledge her innocence.

The final resolution of The Winter’s Tale is slightly rushed and may leave one with more questions than answers. But it’s an uplifting tale of compassion and redemption, and the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble’s innovative production will leave you with a feeling of optimism.