Make this nearly 400-year-old Shakespeare play your own 

  • Contributed photoChild actors rehearse “The Winter’s Tale.”

  • Contributed photo Actors rehearse “The Winter’s Tale.”

  • Troy David Mercier and Linda Tardif star as Leontes and Hermoine in Eggtooth’s production of “The Winter’s Tale.” The play runs Sept. 28 through Oct. 2, with performances at 7:30 p.m. at the Arts Block in Greenfield. There will be a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. Contributed photo/Sloan Tomlinson

  • Actors who will perform “The Winter’s Tale” throughout the Arts Block discuss the play there. Contributed photo

Recorder Staff
Published: 9/14/2016 4:24:34 PM

“The play’s the thing,” wrote the Bard of Avon. But when does the audience ever get to play?

To mark four centuries since his death, a Greenfield production of one of Shakespeare’s least known — and most “out there” — theater pieces offers a leading role to downtown’s 1869 Arts Block. There, the audience will help bring the 393-year-old work to life.

Part comedy, part romance, part drama, “The Winter’s Tale” may have been penned by Shakespeare in 1623 in straight, linear fashion, but the interpretation by Linda McInerney’s Eggtooth Productions lets it float across every corner of the restored 1,700-square-foot building’s five floors.

The play runs Sept. 28 through Oct. 2, with performances at 7:30 p.m., except for a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee.

You, as an audience member, play a key role by choosing exactly where in the building you go and what you experience.

“Here’s what it’s not,” says McInerney: “You sit yourself down in a comfortable chair, you’re sitting in the dark, surrounded by people in the dark, looking at a space, receiving.”

No, this is immersive theater, directed by John Bechtold of Montague, who has specialized in the genre since working in 2009 with Punchdrunk, the British-based theater company whose “Sleep No More” production — a film-noire adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” — still draws crowds in New York, more than five years after its opening.

“It’s an experiential, embodied adventure,” explains McInerney, “where you make it whatever you want. If you want to be a fly on the wall and hover, or if you want to wander five floors, where every single nook and cranny in this huge building is going to be an expression of “The Winter’s Tale,” you are let loose to go. This will be an embodied experience that each audience member can make their own.”

With janitor’s closets, stairways to nowhere and so many obscure spaces, she says —“you can’t count them all” — outfitted with art installations, and with dancing spirits and a wandering troubadour, sections of the play are acted on each floor as audience members choose where to begin and to move to. So, it’s likely that everyone will have a vastly different experience of the play.

The production, a collaboration with The Arts Block and Franklin Community Co-Op, will also include “stewards” on each floor to help orient audience members.

On the surface, this is a play about Leontes, the king of Sicily, who’s visited by his friend Polixenes, a king of Bohemia. Leontes asks his beautiful, pregnant wife Hermoine to convince Polixenes to extend his stay. But then, Leontes becomes suspicious and jealous enough that he exiles his wife. She dies, and their son dies of a broken heart and Leontes is left to seek redemption.

“It’s one of the weirdest plays (Shakespeare) wrote and one of the last plays he wrote, with heart-stoppingly beautiful themes.” says McInerney. “He was wrestling with the ideas of long-term relationships, of aging, of dying, of redemption, of forgiveness. It has all the aspects of human frailty: connection, betrayal of trust, remorse, redemption, reunification. It’s very other-earthly.”

Here, Shakespeare also plays with time, which he makes a real character. There’s a statue that comes to life. The script even has one of the Bard’s strangest-of-all stage directions, “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

“This is not straight-up sh–!” says McInerney. “It’s visionary, it’s filled with dreams, with magic, with mystery, whichmakes it fun to do this immersive thing, because it’s a gorgeous old building, with so much character.”

Bechtold, who first imagined doing the play in this way and in this setting, agrees. “This is one of Shakespeare’s strangest plays. It’s a very tragic play in the first half, and very redemptive and comical in the second half. The character, Time, walks out in the middle of the show and says, ‘Now 16 years have gone by.’ It’s that kind of strange structure that jumps countries, it jumps time, it puts together different genres.”

This kind of sprawling play, fractured by space and time, with themes like cyclical nature of death and rebirth of nature and humanity, lends itself perfectly to immersive theater, where you can stage things that are taking place simultaneously, the director says.

The Arts Block, whose five floors, top to bottom, will represent different worlds — buttoned-up Sicily, Bohemia, an entire forest, a cabaret-like hangout and Hell, the hangout of the goddess Persephone, who also shows up there — lends itself perfectly to “The Winter’s Tale,” says Bechtold.

“The building is a very real metaphor for the play, and it became a near-perfect fit,” he says. “It’s very wild. But the thing that tames it is that the characters are very realistic, they carry a lot of psychological realism with them, and the world of the characters is thrown into kind of a much grander mythic space. I think that’s part of the beautiful strangeness .”

Instead of the audience sitting in a theater trying to make sense of Shakespeare’s lines across a proscenium stage, its members have an intimate relationship with the actors, although there’s no audience participation required.

“If I’m a performer, you can walk right up to me and watch me speak,” says Bechtold. “That intimacy gives a lot of closeness that we want with the language. That building lends itself to that, too.”

Logistically, McInerney says that putting on her first immersive theater production is like, “taking a little leap off the cliff,” with four or five scenes taking place simultaneously and a litany of segments having to line up on five floors with perfect synchronocity, and as many as 50 volunteers needed to make it all work.

Audience members may find it a little like wandering through a surreal maze, with a sculptured hut in one place created by Linda McCrevan that they can explore, and a dance troupe directed by Katherine Adler.

“You will interweave, you’ll be part of everything, it will go on around you,” says McInerney, who promises this will be a unique experience.

“You will smell it, you’ll hear it, it will touch you if you’re open to that,” she says. “All your senses will be engaged.”




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