For this writer, Grace Gonglewski as Paulina in the Folger Theatre production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is one rock solid, indispensable presence. As the bravest truth-teller in The Bard’s strange concoction of The Winter’s Tale, Gonglewski is a most formidable Paulina. She provides gravitas and an emotional ethical core to the production. She defies the usual conventions.
The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s weirder, scripts with sudden male mood swings along with time and location shifts that make it modern in outlook with a trickster’s attitude. Through it all, Gonglewski’s Paulina is a stand-out. She is not bombastic or comic,or too pure; just imposing. Without Gonglewski’s Paulina, The Winter’s Tale would be, as one character notes, something to “be hooted at/like an old tale.”
So who is Paulina? She is the best friend and confidant of Queen Hermione (portrayed by Katie deBuys) who has found herself abused, and worse, by her husband, King Leontes (Michael Tisdale). King Leontes is one impulsive decision-maker; propelled by excessive male jealousy and the need to be obeyed. Paulina stands her ground with the King, risking her own life to try to save Queen Hermione. Paulina has not a weapon in sight, except her own moral presence.
The Winter’s Tale (directed by Aaron Posner) world is crowded with overflowing injustice and all sorts of love, as well as some masterful comic moments (thank you Kimberly Gilbert as Autolycus). Throughout the play, it was Gonglewski’s Paulina that unfailingly held my interest. Her Paulina is a character to be reckoned with; forcefully advocating for her Queen that a reckless, full of bluster King rethink his hasty actions. My colleague Kendall Mustafavi called Gonglewski’s Paula “forceful,” that she “never waivers.” You can read Kendall’s review here.
Wanting to learn more, off I went to interview Grace Gonglewski.
David: Why did you audition for the role of Paulina?
Grace: Ever since my mother and I saw The Winter’s Tale in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1992, I wanted to do the play. My mother gave me a copy of it then and that is the script I used to memorize with. I only wish she had lived to see it—she would have loved this production with its astonishing ensemble and lush music by the amazing Liz Filios. I have seen many productions at The Folger and it was my dream to work there so I couldn’t be happier.
What was is it about Paulina that “speaks to you” as an actor?
Paulina is the spiritual center of the play: righteous, brave and strong. She challenges tyranny and strives for justice. What’s not to like? She’s like Ruth Bader Ginsburg for whom I have undying respect and gratitude.
Starting from a premise that we are all products of our times, why do you think Paulina is so fearless with the King’s threats of physical harm and violence?
I actually think Paulina is very afraid of the King. He threatens to burn her at the stake, but she challenges him anyway, with courage and ferocity. We tried to incorporate our Paulina into the world of the court (Shakespeare originally does not have her show up until Act II scene II) to automatically give her some autonomy and political power. Many people call her names (audacious, lewd-tongued, hag, Dame Partlette i.e. the wife of Chanticleer, which is basically calling her a hen-pecker) but she forges on, letting that stuff slough off her and keeping on task, toward the truth. Have you noticed I do my hair a little Hillary Clinton-esque?
In The Winter’s Tale, Paulina challenges The King and other male characters in verbal combat. They seem to allow the challenges. She is a totally commanding presence as you portray her. What is it about Paulina that allows her to get the respect of the men around her?
The jailer calls her a well-reputed worthy lady, so I think we are clued in to the fact that she has a stalwart reputation. She also has a deep allegiance to the King. Even in her rage, she talks lovingly to him as a “most obedient counselor.” She desperately wants him to revert to the good King everyone knows and loves.
We also chose to not fall back onto a typical hen-pecked marriage with Antigonus, played by the inimitable Eric Hissom—an old friend who was my leading man in Hedda Gabler and Major Barbara. We forged between them respect and love which helps raise Paulina’s standing and makes our particular ending poignant, I hope.
How does Paulina balance other female characters in The Winter’s Tale such as Hermione, Autolycus, and Perdita (Daven Ralston)?
I love how the three ages of women are represented through fair Perdita, gracious Hermione, and audacious Paulina (Shakespeare’s adjectives for them). These women all share the bravery to speak truth to power: Hermione at the trial, Perdita to Florizel when he is starry-eyed in love and she needs him to bring some reasoning to his passion, and of course Paulina in about every scene to everyone. Each of them holds on to the power of faith and hope, and an internal sense that justice will be served. Each one is also willing to suffer in pursuit of the truth.
Autolycus was originally written as a man of course, but I think we bring a very rambunctious and fun element to this female roster by casting her with the brilliant Kimberly Gilbert.
I have often wondered about the man who first breathed life into Paulina as it was illegal for women to act on the stage in Shakespeare’s day. Maybe Alexander Cooke? What did a man bring to her that might be of interest to us today? I would love to have been a fly on that Globe wall!
Do you think Paulina is a character for our current silence breakers of the #MeToo Movement?
Yes, yes of course. She would be at the forefront of the movement. She is gutsy enough to speak up in the face of pain and humiliation because she has right on her side. She carries the knowledge of the Gods inside of her. She cannot be stopped. And she wants to bring everyone along with her.
What is your own favorite part of The Winter’s Tale in your character as Paulina?
Well, I won’t spoil the ending but that is pretty magical for me. When you have lost someone, there is an undying dream to see them again. I adore my scene partner Katie deBuys and watching her every night at the end is profoundly moving—for everyone I dare say.
Director Aaron Posner and I talked about how much magic we believed should figure into the end. As a Quaker, and with a strong religious upbringing, I have a deep faith. At the same time, I have an interest in Buddhism, psychology, and divination. Aaron asked me to bring all of that to Paulina. We both believe that love can be found at the center of the world that people yearn to act with generosity and courage. I think this production does a good job of honoring those elements. Audiences generally seem to be hungry to go on that journey, no matter how much sarcasm and skepticism seem to reign in our current culture. In the end, we all crave connection and grace.
Are there particular lines you speak as Paulina that deeply resonate inside you as you speak them on stage?
There is a certain passage…I translate it as “Oh gosh, you mean I have to be the one to speak the truth? Everyone hates me already, and now I have to do more truth-telling?” I feel it as a mother, as an American, as a worker in the world, when I would rather just tend my chickens and backyard garden, and then some injustice happens and my gut says WE MUST DO SOMETHING. I feel it especially here with the capitol nearby….
These dangerous unsafe lunes in the King, beshrew them!
He must be told on’t, and he shall.
The office becomes a woman best. I’ll take it upon me.
If I prove honey-mouthed, let my tongue blister!”
What’s next for you after The Winter’s Tale?
Who knows! Hey diddle dee an actor’s life for me! For now, I am loving hanging with my sister (a professor at GWU) and her husband (a librarian at The National Gallery). This city is a treasure trove and I love exploring the monuments and museums. I am constantly auditioning, as is every actor. I tell my students you had better do it because you love it and not for the money! I’ve been lucky enough to find terrific studios in DC to continue my voiceover work so if you hear my Campbell’s soup commercial know that it is subsidizing my beloved theatre ‘habit.’
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.