TUCSON, Ariz – Professor Fred Kiefer was out of breath when he reached his office on the fourth floor of the Modern Languages building. Arms laden with books he paused at his office door to unlock it, casting a glance over his shoulder.
Kiefer is a professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance drama at the University of Arizona. Sitting in his office, framed by two desks covered in stacks of books and papers, Kiefer spoke about how he came to work with The Winter’s Tale director, Cynthia Meier.
Patrick Baliani, a fellow professor at UA, has an ongoing relationship with The Rogue Theatre and suggested Meier speak with Kiefer about The Winter’s Tale.
“At it’s most basic, it’s about a king who early in the play goes mad. As a result, his young son dies and his wife apparently dies, although she doesn’t really,” Kiefer explained. “At the end, the husband and wife are reunited, and they’re reunited with their daughter, whom the wife hasn’t seen in 16 years.”
Kiefer said he emphasized one thing in particular when he spoke to Meier: the play has elements of a fairy tale. It’s not realistic yet it speaks profound truths through symbols, through the subconscious.
“So to succeed to that extent, the director needs to tap into fairytales, dreams, visions. Not what’s rational.”
Not one of his most famous plays, the piece has some interesting elements that set it apart from Shakespeare’s other works: the unusually long time span of 16 years, the two unique and contrasting locales, the shift from being a psychological drama in the first half to a comedy with a happy ending in the second half.
The serious material in Shakespeare’s comedies surprises people. “My undergrads are often puzzled by the potentially tragic action,” Kiefer said. “All of his comedies contain a great deal of material different from our notion of comedy today.”
Shakespeare plays tend to fall into obvious categories: history, comedy, tragedy. But the mix of dramatic elements within a comedic atmosphere makes it a difficult piece to classify. Though originally thought of as a comedy, recently scholars have regarded it more as a romance.
“Labels are attached to it because along with Pericles and The Tempest, they are different from Shakespeare’s other plays. People try to find a label that expresses what is different and unusual.”
For Kiefer, the “psychological improbability” of the play sets it apart. “The play will defeat you.” Kiefer said. “The action in this play is not meant to be seen in the way the action is meant to be seen in a conventional novel.”
In some novels, you have certain expectations of rational and realistic behavior. That standard isn’t always met in this play. “The characters behave in ways that seem to have no basis in reality. For example, [Leontes] suddenly goes mad then regains sanity without any indication to the audience why.”
This makes the play challenging, particularly for the audience. “It defies our expectations for realism.” He said. “The audience will have to adjust to that.
Despite its eccentricities, Kiefer says there are always points of comparison among Shakespeare plays. “Dynamics of families: what causes stresses, interactions, formations, endurance overtime – those are constants in Shakespearean comedy.”
Not much is known about Shakespeare’s private life at the time he wrote the play so we have few insights on the possible factors that influenced him. We do know that at the time he was beginning to plan for retirement, planning to leave the theatre world of London. According to Kiefer, it’s one of the last plays he wrote.
Kiefer has seen his fair share of performances of The Winter’s Tale. One production in London took place in present day with electric guitars providing the music.
But no matter the artistic differences, Kiefer says that for him, the most likeable scene is always the ending: the reunion of the family. “It is always the most powerful point in the play.”
“Virtually every production I’ve seen has worked,” he said. “I hope it’ll be good.”