The Winter’s Tale’ becomes a fairy tale

The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen are not the typical research materials one reaches for when approaching Shakespeare, but for the U theater department’s guest director Michael Barakiva, these are ideal sources of inspiration.

Barakiva, Israeli-born, Jersey-reared and a New Yorker since graduate school, has spent the past four weeks in Salt Lake City running rehearsals for Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.”

With previous experience directing college and university-level productions, Barakiva found something in U theater students that stood out and particularly impressed him.

“I was very pleased, especially with the seniors, with how adeptly they handled the (Shakespearean) verse,” Barakiva said. “Usually it’s terrifying, and I was prepared for it to be terrifying.”

“I think the actors are trained very well here because it’s a BFA program,” he said. “They entered rehearsals prepared and able.”

Before rehearsals began, Barakiva gave each actor the task of translating their lines into modern English language.

“When you’re doing Shakespeare, that’s the first thing you have to be able to do,” Barakiva said. “That’s the ticket to the play.”

Once in the rehearsal period, Barakiva’s first move was to have the cast read fairy tales out loud and later write their own fairy tales about the play in the perspective of their individual characters.

Although the connection between Shakespeare and fairy tales might appear arbitrary, Barakiva discovered this bond in the unique genre classification of “The Winter’s Tale” — a story of a jealous king and his wrongfully accused, pregnant queen.

“This play is an especially complicated Shakespeare play, because it belongs to the genre of romance (of which he only wrote four), which combines tragic, comedic and mystical elements,” he said.

In his research, Barakiva became interested in the unique concept of a fantastical winter’s tale, as our closest equivalent is the telling of a fairy tale beside one’s fire place during mid-winter.

“I bought the complete collection of Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and a book of international fairy tales,” said Barakiva, who spent the month prior to his arrival in Utah reading the tales.

“Fairy tales are not interested in a lot of things,” he said, giving examples, such as psychology or making sense. “An enormous amount of time can pass in one line.”

This structurally unsound liberty is taken in “The Winter’s Tale,” as Shakespeare writes the chorus of time to declare to the audience that there has been a passage of 16 years.

Barakiva said his research with fairy tales guided his work with “The Winter’s Tale” — “a play with so much going on” — in that he posed the question, “What is the play interested in?” Then mimicking the streamlined focus of fairy tales by not worrying about the scenes in the play that did not adhere to the play’s main interest: “redemption, atonement, hope and miracle.”

In bringing “The Winter’s Tale” to production, Barakiva collaborated with design students from the U theater department as well.

“One of the things that have been really impressive to me about the program is the quality of the student designers,” he said.

“The whole play is supposed to be a fairy tale,” said Brandon Farnsworth, set designer to the production, who was inspired by the work of artist Monet when deciding to create the visual aspect of “The Winter’s Tale” in an impressionist manner.

“I think (impressionism) fit the idea of the play in that it’s in an idealist world and to me impressionism is like this idealistic thing,” Farnsworth said. “You kind of see what you want to see.”

“In the last act of the play, one of the characters talks about drawing curtains and she keeps on threatening to close the curtains,” said Barakiva. “I don’t know why this stuck out in my head so much, but curtains are so theatrical. There was a 300-year period where all theaters were built with them, so the image became very powerful for me, as a theatrical theme and as an image of the play.”

From this, the play’s design is heavily centered on curtains, with separate rows containing multiple sheets of white opaque fabric that hang down from the ceiling, layering the stage.

With the curtain theme lending a weightless and mutable effect to the playing space, “The Winter’s Tale” is suggestive of a fairy tale world not only in its textual focus, but in its visual presentation as well.

“We live in a time that is starved of hope,” said Barakiva. “And this play offers it in abundance.”

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