By Joel Applegate
Grassroots Shakespeare Company cannot fail to inform, delight or otherwise energize anyone lucky enough to be in its audience. GSC is once again housed in the Masonic Temple in Salt Lake for the holidays. This venue is a treat to visit, and provides great viewing on comfortable benches and chairs.
The Winter’s Tale showing now through January 6th for only a few performances should be seen just because it’s seldom performed, and because it’s not altogether light nor dark, and because the cast doesn’t just wink at the audience, they embrace it. And they’re so happy you’ve come to see their tale play out.
A jealous King Leontes (Benjamin James Henderson), turns tyrant when he visits an injustice both upon his friend, King Polixenes (George Lucero), and upon his Queen (Jessamyn Svensson), who must wait a generation to be exonerated.
In the meanwhile, a princess grows up in a rustic setting, not even knowing how far away from home she is, nor even who she is. Perdita (Kailey Azure Green) is held in anonymity, adopted by a Shepherd whose wisdom is held in secret, attended by a pickpocket and a clown and spiced by the incongruous appearance of a man-eating bear.
The play skates so close to both tragedy and farce, but the themes are redemption and patience. What makes this more interesting, I think, is that this play came about late in the canon, when the light of Shakespeare’s own life was fading. The pickpocket’s line makes me think more than any other: “Blessed are we that are not simple men”. Is morality a debate only among the intelligent?
Simple tricks of stagecraft are another hallmark of this Shakespearean troupe. The use of a curtain for a reveal was so simple, but so cleverly effective as a device. There was no trickery, but absolute transparency, just as GSC strives to be. There’s no attempt at special effects – the actors’ skills augment our imagination.
As Leontes, Henderson leads the ensemble during the first half. He is so wonderfully adept at the language – and so terrible in drag as Mopsa. But I say that smiling in remembrance. And his bear-in-a-onesy is barely scary. Svensson achieves a big contrast of character in both Hermione and later the Shepherd who finds the princess tossed upon the shore. She has a nice versatility playing both the open-hearted Hermione (“Patience standing before tyranny”) and the old Shepherd, whose foolish exterior hides a nurturing father. Lucero as Polixenes has a clear, upright manner, and Green’s Perdita shows the same strength of character as the mother from whom she was separated so long ago.
Nick Grossaint, as Autolycus, is clearly enjoying himself, executing an excellent bit of pick-pocketing stage business. Though a larcenist, his performance renders himself harmless, and, in fact, he does some good for the young lovers of our tale without meaning to. The lovers are played by Green and Jack Kyle Oram as Florizel. We’ve seen Oram already in the first half, persuasive as Leontes’ just and fair adviser, Antigonus. Now he softens to the role of the loving prince. Alex Rettie as the clown and Perdita’s adoptive brother is sweetly daffy with a charming energy. Amber Dodge as Paulina and Phil Varney as Camillo become able foils to Leontes’ ferocity. Dodge is a passionate advocate, solid in her defense and a very worthy adversary.
There are varying levels of skill here, and the doubling of characters may confuse those who don’t know the outline of the story. In the second half of the performance, GSC didn’t quite succeed in helping the audience differentiate between new characters being introduced. But that’s quickly forgotten because the second half is very playful and romantic. I was soothed by the use of the Elizabethan tune, “Greensleeves”. It is better known in modern times as the Christmas hymn, “What Child is This?”. Originally composed as a romantic theme, it was played and sung in lovely interludes.
GSC’s actors, all of whom double (some triple!) roles, seemingly know nothing of the fourth wall – that theatrical convention dictating actors and audience must keep their distance from each other. Never have I seen Grassroots’ actors engage with the audience so directly. They exchange words, urge us to cheer or hiss and their soliloquies do not go out into empty air – they are shared with the audience as honestly as the characters are true.
Tickets $12 adults, $6 children
Remaining Performances Dec 30, and Jan 4 and 6 at 7:30. Doors open at 7 PM for pre-show and opening act – usually some great musicians to delight you and warm you up.
Masonic Temple in Salt Lake City – 650 East South Temple