Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

Coatlicue in Alaska: The Winter's Tale

Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

Coatlicue in Alaska: The Winter's Tale

Article excerpt

One morning in May 2004, before rehearsals for the Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre, where I was serving as dramaturg, I took a bird tour with wildlife biologist Steve Springer. We drove around the back roads of Fairbanks in Steve's SUV, peering into puddles to see who might be stopping over. We spotted teal, grebe, ring-neck ducks. A warbling song rang out over the sedges, and Steve whistled back. "That's a Yellow Legs," he said, and soon we saw it, a little shore bird with long, gold legs. It looked like what I would have called a sandpiper, the ones that crowd the Mexican beaches in the winter, running in huge flocks from wave to wave.

"I didn't know they could sing like that," I said.

"Up here, they do, because it's mating season. They do all kinds of things they don't do in the winter, like sing, and display for females, and threaten other males that come too close." The Yellow Legs, so timid and uninteresting in his winter home, let out another stream of melody. Why must they come all the way to Alaska to assume their spring personalities, I wondered.

"It's just hard-wired," Steve said.

Now that we have airplanes, my species can duplicate the migratory exploits of the Yellow Legs. I had just done it. Two weeks earlier, I had been walking through the ruins of Teotihuacan, in central Mexico. Now I was in Alaska, working on a production of the Winter's Tale. Maybe I was following my own hard-wiring when I started to draw parallels between the play and my continental journey. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I saw connections. Alaska and Mexico could stand for the winter and summer extremes of North America, as Sicilia and Bohemia do for Europe in Shakespeare's play. That's the kind of association that happens in the minds of directors, actors, audiences, and especially in the dreamy minds of dramaturgs, when a 400-year-old English play based on Greek and Roman myths is brought to life again in the birch woods of Alaska. For those of us assembled at the FST camp outside town, there was nothing odd about outdoor Shakespeare in the perpetual daylight of an Alaskan summer night, and to me there was nothing odd about suddenly recognizing Coatlicue, the Aztec mother-goddess, in The Winter's Tale. Such fusions are what we aim for in our North American lives.

I had seen Coatlicue in Mexico City. A monumental carving of the goddess from the Templo Mayor, now in the Museum of Anthropology, shows her with two serpent heads and long, long talons. Her decorations include human skulls and a necklace of sacrificial offerings--human hearts and hands. She is supposed to be a nurturer, but she is one of scariest things I ever saw. Life was violent for the Aztecs, and they knew that fertility and destruction were close companions. Although modern cultures soften and disguise the link between birth and death, it remains more evident in places such as the interior of Alaska, where the environment makes extreme demands. It is certainly evident in The Winter's Tale.

Katie Jensen, who played Hermione in this production, arrived for the first day of rehearsals wearing a pillow under her long skirt to simulate the queen's advanced pregnancy. It's hard to say how daring it was for Shakespeare to show a heavily pregnant woman on stage in the 1600's, but he didn't do it often. (D. A. Bartlett, a University of Alaska literature professor, says she never heard the word "pregnant" spoken aloud until after she graduated from college. This was in the 1950's.) There are only a few other pregnancies directly represented in the plays, notably in darker or "problem" comedies: Ali's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Pericles. In The Winter's Tale, pregnancy itself seems to be the problem.

That was how Katie saw it, too. Her pillow-belly quickly became a factor in rehearsals for the opening scene. It made moving on the stage clumsy, both for her and for the men, Bruce Rogers as Leontes and Tom Robenolt as Polixenes. …

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