Life is complicated. Love, trust, hope, sadness, grief, betrayal—emotions and how we experience them are seldom back and white. Like many humans throughout history, Shakespeare explored the depths of emotion through art and creative work. Several centuries later, we still perform Shakespeare’s works and use them to explore what it means to be human and all the complexities that come with experiencing our emotions.
Portland Shakespeare Project is putting on one such performance at Portland Playhouse from July 7 to July 17: a modern verse adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.
According to Michael Mendelson, the director of The Winter’s Tale, the performance was a long time coming. “This has been an extraordinary journey because this is a show Portland Shakes wanted to do two years ago, and we have not been able to do that until now,” he said.
Like many things in the art world, this performance had to be put on hold as the world reeled from the COVID-19 pandemic.
To make their adaptation more accessible to modern audiences, the art education organization Play On hired the playwright Tracy Young to translate this performance into modern verse. In fact, since 2015, Play On has worked on translating all 39 of Shakespeare’s works into modern verse.
Tracy Young’s adaptation attempts to provide a more accessible experience that modern viewers can relate to.
“Tracy’s translation orchestrates the show really well…it makes the darker stuff even darker, and it makes the lighter stuff even lighter,” Mendelson said. “There are moments in the tragedy of this play that we’re laughing at the tragedy because it’s so absurd. Even if it’s not joy, even if it’s ironic laughter, crying laughter, laughing at oneself…we just have to unpack it.”
Morgan Cox, the actor who plays a character named Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, also said that the play captured a range of emotions. “I think that really speaks to the human experience,” Cox said. “I mean, I think too of times of grief that I’ve been in, and then all of a sudden there’ll be a moment where I find humor somehow, and that kind of allows you if you are able to let yourself kind of feel those things, process and heal and move through that.”
Cox’s character Hermione in particular does not seem to be able to experience the comedy of what’s happening in the performance, which is what we as audience members experienced quite frequently. While Hermione stands falsely accused of infidelity, viewers in the audience were able to laugh at her husband Leontes, played by Philip Ray Guevara, who portrays a man on the verge of madness. Hermione, however, is not laughing, and neither is Leontes. The audience can see their situation from a bird’s-eye view that highlights the feeling of absurdity, when all the character feels and sees is their reality, pain and perceived betrayal.
This bird’s-eye view allows viewers to see action and consequences, to empathize with the characters’ pain and to explore human complexities.
“That’s why I think [Shakespeare’s plays] are relevant,” Mendelson said. “We have to take them out of context. Now we have to understand why they were written when they were written and what that meant. We have to look at them with new eyes and say, you know what, that doesn’t hold to me. This is the other thing that I see in it now because of what I see that’s going on in the world.”
Despite Portland Shakespeare Company’s efforts to make Shakespeare’s modern verse adaptation more accessible, it’s still hard not to look back and see in some places how Shakespeare was, intentionally or not, limited to the privileged class. This is partly what many individuals find problematic about classical theater—its propensity to exclude those who don’t fit into a very narrow box.
As Carey Perloff, artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater, stated in an interview with National Endowment for the Arts, “[Classical theater] is considered elitist or narrow or white or male, which is sometimes true, but I would argue not as true as people think.”
Despite its centuries-old roots, Shakespearean drama is changing. From the practice of modernizing the language to casting more women and people of color, the world of Shakespeare has become aware of its need to change instead of remaining rigid and static.
“That [view] is changing and has changed and will continue to change,” Mendelson said. “So I think it’s important too. Look at what is reflected now and build on that instead of living with this past tape going on, right? Some people want to live in that past tape because it serves them in some way. But when you actually see what’s going on out there, if you take a picture of the Shakespeare companies and look at who’s on stage and who’s involved in the art, you see a very different picture, so it’s time to change that.”
Another feature of the Portland Shakespeare Company’s attempt to shift the narrative of exclusiveness was their intention to cast women to play women and allow their strength and grace to guide the show, even in the moments when they did not have any lines at all. “One of the problems I see in the play is that in act five, Shakespeare does not give Perdita or Hermione many lines at all who should be talking a lot,” Mendelson said. “So it’s important to have people like Miriam and Morgan playing those roles because they’re really strong actresses and you can’t help but watch them and see how they’re going to behave.”
Lucy Paschall, who plays the character Paulina, has a strong presence on the stage even when she is not talking. Audience members can easily be drawn to her character’s fiery and fiercely protective personality, whether she is speaking or not.
During the course of the play, I was repeatedly drawn to Miriam Schwartz. She portrayed the character Perdita with the utmost elegance and grace. I found myself eyeing her numerous expressions with wonder and amazement, as she took in her world with a silent strength.
Whether she is speaking or not, Hermione’s portrayal by Morgan Cox in the play is an enthralling performance. It embodies love, grief, strength and grace in the face of struggle and heartbreak in an unparalleled way and leaves the audience breathless.
Cox was able to tap into her inner strength for her performance. “I consider myself a strong woman in my day-to-day life, but you know, I’m also extremely vulnerable,” she said. “I feel very open to the world. And so in the show, like I kind of get to use that vulnerability, but then also really try to bring in the strength to the forefront, maybe even a little bit more than I do sometimes in my day-to-day.”
In watching this play, I think almost everyone can find something to relate to and to take away from it—to see ourselves or others in our life through the lens of the theater can allow for healing and growth, something we are all in desperate need of during this time of uncertainty and unrest.
“The theater teaches us how to be human, and we’ve been away from that for so long lately, so those who take the time and have the desire to come and sit with us for the duration of the play, I hope their hearts are opened a little bit more, I hope their minds are broadened a little bit more,” Mendelson said. “Maybe [they] come away with a little more grace and patience for one another and the notion that if something is unresolved in their life, that’s okay. It’s a journey, and journeys take as long as you’re gonna take, but you have to be willing to do the work…I think that that’s part of the journey of life.”