Muhlenberg stages a brisk 'Winter's Tale,' Nov. 20-24
Director Troy Dwyer rewires Shakespeare's tragicomedy to speak to contemporary issues and audiences
Toward the end of his career, Shakespeare broke away from the conventional rules of playwriting and wrote a series of plays that featured wild dramatic verse and then-contemporary humor. The epitome of this defiantly innovative approach was "The Winter's Tale," written around 1610, and coming to the Muhlenberg College mainstage Nov. 20-24.
"The play has a real spirit of experimentation and rebelliousness," says Troy Dwyer, who directs the production. "When they go see Shakespeare, many audience members brace themselves to do a lot of work. And often enough, modern productions make them."
Dwyer's aim, he says, is to allow the audience to relax and enjoy the playfulness of Shakespeare's writing.
"I want the audience to let us do the work," Dwyer says. "I want them to experience a strong sense of joy and understanding that they don't have to labor for. That joy can come from comedy or it can come from the thrill of genuinely absorbing drama."
"The Winter's Tale" is the story of two intertwined kingdoms gripped by an icy prophecy. A demon bear hunts its victims along the tree-lined shore of Bohemia. Hundreds of miles across the ocean in Sicilia, something just as nightmarish stalks a young queen – her husband's jealous madness. As both monsters pounce, Shakespeare's unpredictable fantasy is set into motion.
Part suspenseful tragedy, part rollicking comedy, part grisly fairy tale, the play defies convention while showcasing what Dwyer calls "some of the most breathtaking language ever heard on the English stage."
The show runs Nov. 20-24 in the Studio Theatre, Trexler Pavilion for Theatre & Dance at Muhlenberg College. In the interest of expediting the action, Dwyer has cut the play to a brisk two hours.
"Modern audiences are very different from 1610 audiences," Dwyer says. "They understand stories differently, and I think if you're going to do Shakespeare in 2013, you have to adapt to that different sensibility. That doesn't mean dumbing the play down or stripping out historical context. It just means being thoughtful about pacing and emphasis, and working to develop relatable characters."
Dwyer has also added choreography by Allison Berger and an original score by Sean Skahill for an enhanced multisensory experience.
"I want the audience to be pulled away from the dependence on language and narrative by providing other textures of experience," Dwyer says. For example, the play's infamous demon bear is depicted not by a large fuzzy costume but by the actors, through movement and music.
"The music and choreography makes it a more holistic and engaging experience for audiences," Skahill says. "Music can express what you can't get out through just talking."
Dwyer says the play closely examines the institution of marriage with its inherent issues of power and parity. He expands that exploration to modern-day issues of marriage equality by gender-swapping certain characters.
"The play is partly about marriage and who has a right to it," Dwyer says. "It's about the ways that marriage is both a privilege and a peril — about the mythic demands that get mapped onto the institution of marriage. The play's young lovers believe that marriage is something worth fighting for, which is a refrain we hear all the time in current discourse. I think the play helps us to disentangle some of the more oppressive threads woven into marriage vows."
Muhlenberg College's Theatre & Dance Department offers one of the top-rated college performance programs in the country, according to the Princeton Review rankings. Muhlenebrg is a liberal arts college of more than 2,200 students in Allentown, Pa., offering Bachelor of Arts degrees in theatre and dance. It has been named annually among the Fiske Guide to Colleges' top 20 small college programs in the United States.
"The Winter's Tale" runs Nov. 20-24 in the Studio Theatre, Trexler Pavilion for Theatre & Dance, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown.
Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets and information are available at 484-664-3333 or online.