Saturday, September 19, 2009
Wandering Souls: Winter's Tale Well-Told
I cannot praise Wandering Souls highly enough, a small troupe of players bringing to passionate life both the comedy and drama of Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale." It was a seven-actor, 20-character tour de force by the peripatetic Wandering Souls, performing their "outreach" production in the beautiful art deco Bethesda Theatre in downtown Bethesda, Maryland, for a limited three-show engagement.
Pared down to its 90-minute essence (the play is perhaps best known for having the greatest stage direction of all time: "Exit, pursued by a bear"), "The Winter's Tale" was accessible to the small audience who was privileged to see it. Though the company did its own marketing, the booking at the between-seasons theater was apparently spur-of-the-moment; the first signal of its existence was the change on the marquee on the day of the first performance.
The vibrant young cast (could any of them have yet seen his or her 30th year?) brought conviction and energy to their multiple roles; the awkwardness of female casting in male roles was deftly handled (Kristen Garaflo as Florizel, Karen Novak as larcenous rogue Autolycus, and puckish Kelsey Meikeljohn as sons of a king and a shepherd), all effusing great charm. One could even hold a warm spot for the irrationally jealous Leontes (JJ Area), for his beliefs, though misguided, were so utterly heartfelt.
The soul of Shakespeare's tragicomedy belongs to the gracious queen Hermione, unjustly condemned for that very graciousness, and her outcast daughter Perdita raised as a shepherdess, parts played with equal helpings of irreproachable nobility and pastoral gaiety by Betsy Rosen.
Kudos to director Adam Jonas Segaller's smart adaptation and clever "stripped down" staging. As actors dart behind a curtain to make a costume (and character) change, or sit on folding chairs off to the side to await their next entrance, there is no attempt for realism except through our connection to the emotions portrayed. This was how Shakespeare often introduced audiences to the staging of his works--suspend your need to see the great battlefields or the passage of time--and the beckoning to use our imaginations is a compelling invitation to adventure.
Kudos also to the Bethesda Theatre and facilities director Tom Davis for offering Wandering Souls the run of the place. The use of the professional venue was intended to show the larger theater-going community what this intrepid band of players is committed to doing elsewhere on its tours of churches, homeless shelters, nursing homes, detention facilities, and community centers.
According to the Wandering Souls' mission statement, printed on the back of the single-sheet program, the troupe is driven by "a belief that the arts can fuel our imagination, engage our personal growth and help unite individuals and communities. Yet, the richness of the arts is often considered a luxury. By bringing stripped-down, high quality, energetic performances to those who have little or no access, we hope to break down that misconception and provide opportunities for a broader cultural exchange."
As the company's Artistic Director Becky Peters was giving her introductory speech before the play--explaining how important it was not just to make the arts more accessible but to actually go into the communities who would not otherwise benefit from these experiences--I commented to my companion, "This was what I wanted to do 30 years ago."
The final performance at Bethesda Theatre is tonight (September 19) at 8 p.m.
soul still wandering