The question, as it always is, is this: What about the bear? At Baltimore's Center Stage, it gallumphs into view, roaring and huffing, a great, blue manifestation of what must be Shakespeare's most bizarre stage direction.
"Exit, pursued by a bear," instructed Shakespeare in Act III, Scene 3 of The Winter's Tale. What was the Bard thinking? Did he intend for a real bear - or perhaps a man in a costume - to appear on stage? Should it be scary or amusing? Was the playwright who would become the most revered writer in the English language toying with the directors of his day, or toying with us?
"The bear is just one of the strangenesses of The Winter's Tale, says Barbara Mowat, director of academic programs at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington.
The play, being performed at Center Stage through March 31, is definitely peculiar. Written in about 1610, it is both tragic and funny. Its story begins in Sicily, leaps 16 years, and ends in Bohemia. There's an irrationally jealous king; a beautiful, pregnant queen; a foundling; a prince in disguise; a hilariously dull-witted shepherd; a personification of Time; a satyr who dances; a statue that comes to life. Shakespeare teases us as he spins his tale, encouraging misperceptions and leaping over logic.
"The bear makes as much sense as anything else," Mowat says.
True, but get the bear right, and things begin to fall into place.
"The bear is indicative of the show's entire aesthetic," says Charlotte Stoudt, dramaturg at Center Stage. "It's a narrative pivot point, the turn from tragedy to comedy in the play. It's crazy. It's campy. It's fun. It's scary. You have all these contradictory feelings, which add up to one of the best moments of the play."
Debates have swirled around the bear for centuries. Initially, the arguments centered on whether Shakespeare intended for an actual bear to be let loose on stage - or for a man in a costume to act like a bear. "By now almost all the critics would agree that it would have had to be a man in a costume," Mowat says.
In Elizabethan England, bears were familiar creatures. Men wagered on bear-baiting contests. Bears symbolized anger and tyranny; some likened them to the king. On the other hand, bears also were seen as nurturing and courageous animals.
Though Shakespeare's odd stage direction involving a bear is the most famous, it was not the first, Mowat says. In Mucedorus, a romance originally performed in 1590, its playwright includes this instruction: "Exit somebody pursued by a bear."
Over time, the bear in The Winter's Tale has been portrayed as a hand puppet. A rug. A shadow. A man carrying a mask. Sometimes the creature horrifies the audience. Sometimes it evokes laughter. Sometimes it doesn't appear on stage at all.
For Brian Kulick, artistic director for the Shakespeare Society of America in New York, the bear represents Leontes, the play's king, who irrationally accuses his pregnant wife of having an affair with his best friend.
In a production directed by Kulick at the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park, the bear was represented in a dream sequence by Leontes, who has destroyed his wife and children in an indefensible outburst of anger.
"In The Winter's Tale, the word 'bear' has its own life," Kulick explains. "It's mentioned in the play about 12 times. It starts as a word meaning 'take away' as in: 'Bear the boy away.'
"But by the end of the play, the word 'bear' becomes about responsibility for one's actions and bearing them and bearing the weight of guilt. And in between weight and responsibility is the ferocious creature."
For clues as to how Irene Lewis, artistic director at Center Stage, views the bear, consider this: The original script calls for the bear to appear only once - in Act III when he devours a man. In this Center Stage production, the bear appears on stage four times.
Played by Warren "Wawa" Snipe, the blue bear, when on his hind feet, stands about seven feet tall and has long, arching pink claws. Costumer Jennifer Sterns carved his head from foam and special-ordered blue fur. She also purchased from a taxidermist two sets of eyes, one yellow to be used when the bear is angry, and one brown for his more mellow moods.
"We needed a bear that was almost mythical," says New York-based costume designer Candice Donnelly. "A bear that could lead the audience from the tragic parts of the play to the other, more whimsical, almost free-associated parts of the play."
It was Donnelly's idea to make the bear blue.
Not long before she began to design the costumes for The Winter's Tale, she read an Italian Vogue magazine in which there was a striking picture of blue feet.
"We need a bear that is enormous," said artistic director Lewis. "One that is scary, but not horrifying. A bear that is believable, but not completely realistic, that is ... "
"Blue," said Donnelly.
And so it is.