Cricket's Notebook "Sunday, 30 August, 2009 12:15 a m 'The Bear's Tale...'"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide


Sunday, 4 October, 2009 12:15 a m
"The Bear's Tale..."

"The Winter's Tale"

by William Shakespeare

Why is it that, at A.R.T., the damned Bear is always funny?

The stage-direction is droll of course: at the end of Antigonus' lines it says

Exit, pursued by a bear.

The funniest stage-direction in Shakespeare? Perhaps --- though the late Dan Seltzer nominated as that the less well-known

Enter Coriolanus, wet.

There's only that glimpse of the bear in the text --- though off-stage it is far from droll:

And then, for the land-service, to see how the bear tore out his shoulder bone,
how he cried to me for help, and said his name was Antigonus, a nobleman.
...and how the poor gentleman roared, and the bear mocked him,
both roaring louder than the sea or weather.

And later:

I'll go see if the bear be gone from the gentleman, and how much he has eaten.
They are never curst but when they are hungry.
If there be any of him left, I'll bury it.

That's all there is to Shakespeare's bear --- and for the life of me I cannot see why it's funny.

In the plan of the play, the bear delivers the last cruel bite of the winter that begins the play. It's spring --- the whole next section of the play is a later-spring sheep-shearing celebration --- and after hibernation the bear must certainly be hungry enough to eat anything, or any one.

In the latest A.R.T. incarnation --- by students at the MXAT Institute for Advanced Theatre Training --- the bear shambled menacingly on growl-grunting, like an animated bear-rug, and Antigonus had good reason for fright. But then the bear stood and began a little dance --- even went up on-pointe a time or two in a sort of presentational-style bid for laughs. After that, the lines describing Antigonus' dismemberment fell on deaf ears.

I have seen the scene played with only a growling shadow pursuing the nobleman off-stage; but that was in another country, and besides....
In the last WINTER'S TALE the A.R.T. attempted, the whole scene was (prematurely) exploded.
The figure of Time in that production was given a minute-hand a dozen feet long. The bear waddled on upright ---
Let me digress here:
Bears' hind legs are not built to carry them upright; they're more like dog's legs than men's legs and so when they do stand upright their large asses bulge out very close to the ground. They stand upright to free both paws and claws for sweeping, biting blows. To simulate the ungainly lurching gait, a man in a bear suit would best try to walk with his legs crossed at the knees.
In any case, the bear waddled in upright --- a tall grizly apparently, with rightly relatively short lower limbs. However, the bear proceeded to dance with Time, till at one point Time swung his minute-hand spear around and hit the bear's middle --- and it sliced in two! Then the cub-sized lower half capered off followed by the stumbling top half, and the play resumed.

It was a grand moment of vaudeville, one I'd love to see excerpted and done on-stage free of any pretense that a performance of Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale" was taking place before and after this clever piece of music-hall folderoll.

Now it is true that just down the street from Shakespeare's GLOBE Theatre was a pit for bear-baitings. It was probably common that wastrels bet hard money on how many hounds'd be eviscerated before they tore out the bear's shoulder bone and made an end to him. (There's a bear baited in Roman Polanski's film of "Macbeth"; check it out sometime.) Maybe the groundlings thought poor Antigonus' fate funny.

In more modern productions, though, maybe the problem lies in the fact that the description of his demise is put in the mouth of a character yclept "Clown". He's actually the young son of the Shepherd what finds poor Perdita exposed on the strand, brings her up as a pretty peasant, and et cetera. Could be when The King's Men (or were they still the Admiral's Men then?) did the show, the comic Welshman and morris-dancer Will Kemp (The one they had to sack when he ad-libbed too much) played the part --- though, no, he'd be best as Autolycus, the ballad-selling peddler, cut-purse, and con-man. "Clown" and "Shepherd" are indeed funny later when come bung-up against gentry and royalty, but here on Bohemia's seacoast there's little cause yet for merriment. Less for funny man-eating bears.

So why does the A.R.T. do it, I wonder?

Break a leg all!
( a k a larry stark )

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide