The audience gasps when two towering bookcases shudder and collide, sending 1,000 volumes tumbling precipitously to the stage below.
Those packed shelves, sentinels of a rational life that has just met its own crashing demise, dominate the Royal Shakespeare Company’s lingeringly moving production of “The Winter’s Tale” at New York’s Park Avenue Armory.
The ignominious events that unfold quickly and brutally include a loyal pregnant wife sentenced to death for infidelity, a vivacious young prince dying of heartbreak and a disconsolate consigliere devoured by a rampaging bear.
Veering between melodrama and ursine comedy, this fable of enduring love and the power of forgiveness is a perennial challenge to directors and designers. Director David Farr and designer Jon Bausor updated the action to the 18th century, making the story of Sicilian king Leontes, driven by jealousy to cruel acts and bitter remorse, a tale of a mind broken and ultimately healed through words.
“We’ve set it in the Age of Enlightenment, so it has the world of Kant about it,” Bausor said in an interview from London. “I was interested in Leontes resting his idealism on law and order. His world is stacked up on the shelves on stage.”
Leontes loses his adoring wife Hermione and his beloved boy Mamillius. Everything has come crashing down upon him -- in this case, quite literally.
End is Nigh
“It made sense to destroy this world,” Bausor, 34, said. “We register that Mamillius was reading these books.”
The result, as the recovering audience quickly surmises, is a major mess. With the action moving directly to rustic, bawdy Bohemia, Bausor pulls off a second brilliant effect: The 16-foot-high bookcases, now set against each other in a giant A shape, becomes Bohemia, the leaves of the books now leaves of trees, a bower for the young lovers Florizel and Perdita.
“It was an efficient scene change, shoving everything forward, making it more in the round,” Bausor understated.
When the intermission comes, curious patrons inevitably make their way to the stage of the theater, a replica of the RSC’s Stratford home base. There they see works from the Enlightenment, along with its shadow image, represented by the dark tales of the brothers Grimm.
“You have to prepare for them going up and looking at everything,” Bausor said. “We made the artwork for each one of those pages -- Grimm’s fairy tales renderings. It helps me and the director get conceptually through the play. It sets the rules.”
Ultimately, someone does have to clean it all up after each show -- especially when the company has four other productions to prepare for.
“Placing the books is an onerous and long task, which fortunately I don’t have to do,” said Richard Smith, the RSC’s principal automation technician (a title that probably would have baffled theatergoers when “The Winter’s Tale” was first performed at Shakespeare’s Globe in 1611).
The collapse is controlled from the technician’s rail out front, with a backup under the stage in case anything goes wrong.
“When it’s over, it’s all hands on deck,” Smith said, for another chore he’s happy to turn over to others. “It takes about 25 minutes to a half hour just to clean it all up.”
Noisily dismantling the scenery during the show has long been an effect beloved by British designers. I asked Smith if the New York audiences were different from those in London, especially when those bookcases begin their unsettling topple.
“We do get more whoops here,” he said. “In Britain, it’s as if nothing happened. Because it’s what we do well.”
“The Winter’s Tale” is running through Aug. 14 in repertory with four other Shakespeare plays at the Park Avenue Armory, Park Avenue and East 67th Street. Information: +1-212-721-6500; http://www.lincolncenterfestival.org.
(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)