by ROSE BRENNAN, A&E Editor
In what has now become a tradition at Manhattan College, the American Shakespeare Center (ASC) made their annual visit to Smith Auditorium to perform “The Winter’s Tale” on Friday, Oct. 12.
The ASC has been coming to Riverdale every fall since 2012. Their yearly performance has now become a favorite fall semester event of students and faculty across the campus.
One of the masterminds behind the event was Brian Chalk, Ph.D., an associate professor of English, who was familiar with the ASC long before their first performance in Smith Auditorium. When Chalk was an undergraduate at James Madison University, one of his professors was the founder of the ASC. Over the course of the semester, Chalk saw several productions by the company, which ultimately inspired him to become an English professor.
“I told myself if I ever got the opportunity, I would bring them to wherever I ended up. And I ended up [at MC], and now they’ve been coming since 2012,” Chalk said.
While “The Winter’s Tale” may not be one of Shakespeare’s more well-known plays, it is actually among one of Chalk’s personal favorites.
“I can’t think of a play that brings out the more miraculous nature of theater than ‘The Winter’s Tale,’” he said.
“The Winter’s Tale” is a part of Shakespeare’s romance plays, which were written in the later part of his career. According to Chalk, the romances are quite different from the comedy/tragedy genres of Shakespeare’s earlier work, because they incorporate elements of both. In fact, Chalk classifies the first half of ‘The Winter’s Tale’ as “a tragedy on warp speed.”
“Things happen very quickly and unexpectedly, and when a tragic event happens, normally, tragedy stops time,” Chalk said. “That tragedy takes place and things come to an end on a tragic note. In the romances, things keep going, and things get weird.”
The ASC faced several unique challenges with “The Winter’s Tale.” To start, “The Winter’s Tale” is not as well-known as some of Shakespeare’s other plays. With this challenge, there are several questions which must be answered.
“It’s not like MacBeth or [A Midsummer Night’s Dream] or Hamlet, so it starts off with ‘what audience are we trying to play to?’” said Topher Embrey, a member of the ASC, who played the first lord and the shepherd’s son. “I think it’s been difficult trying to figure out the audience for this particular one, because so many people … have opinions about what Shakespeare means.”
Another critical aspect unique to “The Winter’s Tale” was the decision of how to portray the magical elements of the story. Some of these elements are obviously supernatural, such as King Leontes calling upon the god Apollo to prove his wife’s innocence or guilt, and the immediate fallout after the king disobeys him.
“I think the magic … is in the different worlds we live in,” said Embrey, referring to the play’s two settings of Sicilia and Bohemia.
But to fellow castmate Annabelle Rollison, who played Paulina, there is also a magic in the play which might not be as blatantly obvious.
“I would say the magic is in the forgiveness and the redemption in this show. Like how difficult it is to be able to truly forgive someone, especially for something heinous, and … in your heart, really mean it. That is magic,” Rollison said.
Despite contemporary takes on some aspects of the performance, the ASC for the most part aims to stay true to the traditional staging conditions of Shakespeare’s time.
For instance, when the audience first walks into the auditorium before the show starts, they are greeted by members of the company singing and playing instruments to popular songs.
“The music was definitely born of … an earlier iteration of the company trying to just entertain people that were walking in, so very simple. There’s a lot of things about the production style here that are very true to what it would have been like in Shakespeare’s company, including that they would have had musicians in the gallery playing. And it would have been contemporary music to them, which is why we choose contemporary music to us,” Rollison said.
But even after the company finishes the prelude and begins the main production, the lights do not dim. The audience is able to see the action onstage as well as each other. This staging condition is what inspired the ASC’s humorous albeit somewhat vulgar tagline: “We do it with the lights on.”
This desire to remain true to the Shakespearean tradition is appreciated not only by students and faculty, but by some of the college’s higher-ups as well.
“I always loved the way that they approach Shakespeare and just try to restore it to its sense of fun and entertainment,” said Brennan O’Donnell, Ph.D., president of the college, who attended Friday’s production. “The idea that the audience is implicated in a play, I think, is really great for this company.”
Like Chalk, O’Donnell knew of the ASC long before he arrived at MC.
“When I used to teach at Loyola in Baltimore, we used to bring this company in every year,” O’Donnell said. “I would bring them into my classes and the actors would hang out with the students and teach them some stuff about blank verse and about Shakespeare.”
Rollison, along with the rest of the ASC, is committed to continuing the Shakespearean tradition.
“We very much are dedicated to keeping Shakespeare’s staging conditions, because we believe that you keep something special about the production that way. There were things written to be said right into somebody’s eyes,” she said. “There’s a really beautiful connection made between audience and actor when you actually have eye contact. It’s something you can’t really fake.”
This intimacy between actor and audience is important not only to members of the ASC, but to Chalk as well.
“When [students] see a Shakespeare play performed live, they’re seeing it in the context in which it was meant to be experienced. Reading Shakespeare is great, I recommend it to anyone, but there’s nothing like hearing the words spoken aloud.”
“Shakespeare suddenly becomes something that belongs to us, something that is always of our moment no matter when that moment is,” Chalk said.