The Winter’s Tale
At the Goodman (Albert) Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Modern scholars generally agree that William Shakespeare wrote 38 plays, though he shared authorship with other playwright on a few of them. None of them is weirder than his late work “The Winter’s Tale.” The play is lumbered with an illogical plot driven by incredible coincidences and characters with motivations beyond comprehension. Halfway through the show the mood shifts so radically it virtually becomes a new play. In spite of some fine dialogue (this is Shakespeare, after all), the play is a narrative mess. So why bother, when a theater can draw from a couple dozen sure fire audience pleasing classics in the Bard’s canon?
The Goodman Theatre under Robert Falls’s artistic directorship obviously loves a Shakespearean challenge. Consider the theater’s stirring revivals of “King Lear” and “Measure for Measure.” Falls has included “A Winter’s Tale” in the current Goodman subscription series, allowing locals an opportunity to see a show rarely presented to a general audience.
“The Winter’s Tale” gets off to a perplexing start when Leontes, king of Sicilia, accuses his houseguest and boyhood friend, Polixenes, king of Bohemia, of having an affair with Hermione, Leontes’s queen. The Sicilian court is horrified because Hermione’s virtue is beyond criticism, but the enraged Leontes sends her to prison and plots Polixenese’s murder. The visiting king flees back to Bohemia accompanied by Camillo, Leontes’s minister. By the end of the uproar, Leontes’s young son dies of grief over his mother’s disgrace. And then Hermione in prison delivers a baby daughter, who Leontes orders taken into the wilderness and left to die. Why Leontes went off the mental health rails so violently in spite of his wife’s unblemished chastity is never explained. But without Leontes enforcing his false charge there is no play.
Leontes’s actions may be baffling, but Dan Donohue’s acting, especially during the first act, is so realistic that the audience follows the developing scandal with horrified fascination. Near the end of the opening act Leontes suddenly does an emotional about face, recognizing the error of his jealousy. But by that
time the king’s young son is gone and Hermione has been announced as dead.
The second half of the play comes from a different dramatic universe. The setting changes to Bohemia, where Hermione’s baby daughter, Perdita, was deposited and quickly found by a shepherd who raises her. It is now 16 years later, a circumstance announced to the audience by a character named Time. The second act injects spritely dancing and comedy into the tale in contrast to the intense emotions of the opening act. We get foolery from a young clown who is victimized by Autolycus, one of Shakespeare’s most engaging rascals. Autolycus also sings some of the Bard’s most familiar ballads.
With Perdita now grown into a beautiful young farm girl Shakespeare further stretches the laws of probability by bringing the lass together with Florizel, the young prince of Bohemia, and Polixenes’s son. How the commoner and the royal heir met and formed their attachment is never explained. In any case, the youngsters determine to marry without the king’s permission, but when Polixenes hears of their plans he goes into a tantrum and threatens the lovers with dire consequences if they wed (the sticking point being that Polixenes sees Perdita as a lowly shepherd’s daughter unfit to be a royal consort).
A spoiler’s alert would normally be appropriate about now, but the corkscrew plot would require a spoiler’s alert virtually every scene, so let’s just plow ahead. Florizel and Perdita flee to Sicilia to escape Polixenes’s vengeance. Leontes, in mourning for the loss of Hermione, welcomes the runaways, and it is revealed to the king (and the audience) that Hermione isn’t dead but had been living in seclusion. Which brings up the question of why Hermione lived hidden when her husband had recanted his libels against her 16 years earlier and presumably the coast was clear? The two lost 16 years of happy wedded life for no discernible reason.
“The Winter’s Tale” works, primarily because of Dan Donohue’s superb work as Leontes. In an absorbing but never melodramatic performance, Donohue sells Leontes as a man inexplicably consumed by sexual jealousy. There is no foreshadowing to his sudden emotional upheaval. It just happens, but Donohue is believable both as the maddened and then remorseful king. Without a credible Leontes, the play’s narrative holes jump out at the audience and the story becomes almost laughable.
The ensemble features fine complementary work by Kate Fry, whose Hermione maintains her dignity and her innocence as her world collapses without explanation or justification. Nathan Hosner is an agreeable Polixenes, baffled like every other character by Leontes’s jealous fury. Ironically, the previously mild-mannered Polixenes’s raging at Florizel and Perdita is the most chilling moment in the production. Christiana Clark, as one of Hermione’s ladies in waiting, actually drew applause from the opening night audience during her character’s fierce defense of the queen in a confrontation with the vengeful Leontes. Philip Earl Johnson is perfect as the genial con man Autolycus who weaves through the second act singing Shakespeare’s ballads like a droll blue grass musician. Gregory Linington does a wry and sympathetic turn as Antigonus, who rescued the infant Perdita and thus kept the play going for another act. Everyone else in the 19-pmember ensemble is well up to the mark, though I thought the actors playing Florizel and Perdita lacked chemistry as lovers.
Walt Spangler’s sets skillfully create the play’s two separate worlds, with the minimalist stage designs in the grim first act giving way to the exuberant and colorful second act in Bohemia. There was even a giant puppet sheep shearer comically hanging over the rural festival. Then contrasting moods of the two acts were effectively enhanced by Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes, Aaron Spivey’s lighting, and Richard Woodbury’s original music and sound design. Dressing the courtiers in modern clothes in the first act created a visually familiar atmosphere that deftly established a sense of realism, giving the storyline a bit of sorely needed credibility.
In the classroom, “The Winter’s Tale” can be explored as a study in renunciation, renewal, and loss. But on the live stage, the action, with its massively unlikely twists and turns doesn’t allow the viewer much opportunity for scholarly reflection. Still, with proper insight “The Winter’s Tale” can hold an audience’s attention as an accessible story of misguided passion leavened with rustic humor and romance. And so it is in the well thought-out and performed Goodman revival, brought in at a brisk 2 hours plus intermission. Patrons who enter the Goodman believing “The Winter’s Tale” is a show for Shakespearean completists are in for a pleasant surprise.
The show gets a rating of
“The Winter’s Tale” runs through June 9 at the Goodman Albert Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street. Performances are Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., and Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $80. Call 312 443 3800 or visit GoodmanTheatre.org/The Winter’s Tale.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. May 2019
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