Winter break: Director’s ‘Tale’ shakes up Polonsky Center

A cold heart: Anatol Yusef plays the imperious King Leontes in Theater for a New Audience’s production of “The Winter’s Tale,” which officially opens on March 25.
for Brooklyn Paper
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It’s a bear of a story to deal with.

A chilly, snowy spring is the ideal backdrop for William Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” opening this weekend at Fort Greene’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center. The tragicomedy, written late in Shakespeare’s career, follows Leontes, a jealous king, who accuses his queen, Hermione, of infidelity. Director Arin Arbus brings the mammoth five-act play to life, but said that, although she has tackled a half-dozen of the Bard’s plays before, this “problem play” is something entirely new.

“With this play, Shakespeare created a new form,” said Arbus. “He’s written a three-act tragedy, followed by a fourth-act comedy with song and dance, and then in the fifth act, there’s a miracle; a mythic, spiritual restoration. This was written by a man who lost a child 15 years earlier, who felt guilty, and I think the play is looking at what’s possible after a tragedy or great loss.”

While fun to direct, Arbus admitted it was challenging to balance the play’s tonal shifts.

“The language does it so effortlessly, but in production, you have to figure in actors, costumes, lighting — all these elements that must sync up with the text,” she said.

So she ditched her preconceived notions, and worked with set designer Riccardo Hernandez to allow the play’s language to create the physical spaces, including Sicilia, Bohemia, and the interior of King Leontes’s mind. Crafting an open, abstract set for the play created new possibilities for the actors, said Arbus.

“If you don’t have to fit the action into an Edwardian living room, there’s space to make discoveries about what’s actually happening,” she said.

The Polonsky Shakespeare Center is uniquely flexible in its design, allowing a director to reconfigure sets according to their vision. For “A Winter’s Tale,” Arbus is using a thrust configuration, which brings the audience in close to the action.

“The great thing about the space is it’s at once intimate and epic,” said Arbus. “It’s a tall space, great for classical plays where you want to be able to hear an actor whisper onstage. But you also want to get a sense of something larger than human scale, like the Act Five miracle. This is a space where you can feel that.”

Last year, Arbus was honored with an Obie Award for her direction of “The Skin Of Our Teeth,” also at the Polonsky Center. Her residency with the theater has given her great freedom to explore, she said

“Artists need artistic homes in order to take risks, to develop and succeed and even fail, which is an essential part of the process,” she said.

Her next project will be an adaptation of “The Tempest,” performed by Syrian refugees within a Grecian refugee camp. Arbus hopes the experience will be a freeing experience for everyone involved.

“The people we’re working with are in a very difficult situation, but theater can make you feel free,” she said. “I hope by letting people manifest things within their imaginations, the difficulties of their daily lives will disappear for a moment.”

“The Winter’s Tale” at Polonksy Shakespeare Center [262 Ashland Pl. between Fulton Street and Lafayette Avenue in Fort Greene, (866) 811–4111,]. Opening on March 25 at 7:30 pm. Through April 15, Wed–Sun at 7:30 pm. $90–$100 ($20 students).

Updated 5:47 pm, July 9, 2018
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