12 Winters Blog

Illinois Shakespeare Festival delivers an endearing performance of The Winter’s Tale

Posted in Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 12, 2021

Even among Shakespeare enthusiasts, The Winter’s Tale may be something of an acquired taste. It is a strange play. The contrast in tone between the opening acts’ heart-wrenching tragedy and the closing acts’ rollicking comedy has made it seem to many that Shakespeare fused together two very different plays, and perhaps not wholly successfully. In the eighteenth century, many saw The Winter’s Tale as a blemish on Shakespeare’s legacy. Alexander Pope included it among a handful of plays that were so poorly crafted they couldn’t have been the work of the Bard, who may have only contributed a few lines here and there to a flawed play that mistakenly bears his name. In 1756, the legendary Shakespearean David Garrick rescued the play by essentially amputating its first half and titling his revision Florizel and Perdita. A Dramatic Pastoral in Three Acts, Altered from The Winter’s Tale of Shakespeare.

Appreciation for the play grew over the centuries, but even in contemporary times it has been known as a problematic play to produce. There are those starkly contrasted halves, for one thing. Also, it is almost entirely a play of effect with very little attention devoted to cause. And, frankly, what are we going to do about the bear?

Always attracted to the odd literary duck, I fell in love with The Winter’s Tale on my first reading, more than forty years ago. My 18-year-old self probably couldn’t have articulated very well just why I found it so appealing, but my 58-year-old self can say without question it is, in fact, the play’s strangeness that I find so engaging. Shakespeare was taking a risk (actually several risks), which was nothing new, but these specific risks were unusual, even for him. There is evidence that his star had faded toward the end of his career; even his own King’s Men were inclined to perform other playwrights’ work. He must have been tempted to return to a style that packed houses just a few years before, or to mimic the plots of his colleagues who were now shining more brightly. Instead, he gives us The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest (both, probably, 1611)—plays that are so unusual they do not fit nicely into the three canonical categories of tragedies, comedies, and histories; instead, becoming known as romances.

I teach a graduate course in Shakespeare, and I always make sure to include The Winter’s Tale (in recent iterations, the other two plays are The Tempest and Othello, with The Taming of the Shrew on standby and sometimes getting the nod). I am so enamored of The Winter’s Tale it is difficult to imagine a production causing me to love it even more—but the Illinois Shakespeare Festival production, directed by Rebekah Scallet, has done just that. Apollo held back the rains long enough for my wife and me to attend the July 11 performance, and we are in his divine debt.

The Festival was not in production last year, of course, because of the pandemic, a pandemic that we are still very much in the throes of; therefore, Covid-19 impacted the current production. Shakespearean theater is minimalist by its very nature, but Scallet managed to create an even more scaled-down performance. Most notably, the play is performed by a skeleton crew of just twelve actors, each of whom has at least two parts, some three. Doubling and tripling, etc., of roles in Shakespeare is not unusual, but generally it doesn’t involve actors handling two or three major roles in the same production. What is more, there are no ensemble actors who could add to the production’s energy onstage.

According to Scallet’s note in the program (online), the smaller cast was an effort to observe social distancing as much as possible, to create space between the actors. The strategy certainly tests the players’ mettle—and each meets the challenge with aplomb. Because of the strange nature of the play—its fusion of tragedy and comedy—the actors have to assume both kinds of roles, resonating at both ends of the spectrum, darkly serious and raucously comedic, at times turning on a dime (a sixpence?).

Dan Matisa, for example, takes on the lead role of King Leontes, who inexplicably comes up with the deranged notion that his very pregnant wife, Hermione (Erica Cruz Hernández), and dearest friend, Polixenes (Christian Castro), have been having an affair, and that the soon-to-arrive baby isn’t his. Leontes is positively venomous, ordering Hermione to be imprisoned and wanting the newborn baby girl to be burned alive. Matisa also plays Autolycus, the roguish prankster who is the source of much of the final acts’ merrymaking. The characters are diametrically opposed, yet Matisa manages both convincingly, with his Autolycus, especially, being among the best performances of that part I’ve seen.

Another standout for me is Grant Goodman, carrying the roles of Antigonus and the Shepherd who finds Leontes’ abandoned baby girl, Perdita (played delightfully by Isa Guitian, once she grows up). Antigonus convinces the enraged Leontes to spare the girl’s life, but as a compromise he must deliver her to the wilds of Bohemia and abandon her there. Again turning on that sixpence, Goodman’s Shepherd ushers in the transition from tragedy to comedy and is responsible for some of the biggest laughs in the second half of the play. Goodman’s chemistry with his Shepherd’s Son (Nathan Stark) is worth the price of admission by itself. Their comic timing is flawless.

Perhaps the best example of how the pared-down casting has led to some of the play’s most memorable moments comes in Act 5, scene 2, when Shakespeare compresses the action into a series of reports by three passing Gentlemen, updating Autolycus regarding what has transpired in King Leontes’ palace. In the Festival production, Autolycus is replaced by a Sicilian Attendant at Court (Ben Matthew), and the three Gentlemen’s reports are delivered via a positively protean performance from Chauncy Thomas, becoming The Gossips, inhabiting three distinct personas, one after another, much to the audience’s delight. Thanks to Matthew and Thomas (along with Scallet’s creativity), a scene which largely serves the function of hastening the plot in the original becomes a high point in the Festival production.

One of the alterations that Scallet makes is adding a prologue to the play, delivered from the upper tier of the stage by personified Time, played by Lisa Gaye Dixon (also Paulina). The personification of Time was one of the play’s features that turned early critics, like Pope, against it; and even in modern performances, directors often delete the character. Instead, Scallet leans into the narrative device, even adding, as I said, a new speech to open the play. The prologue puts the production in context, identifying that the pandemic has affected the production and in what ways, all in language worthy of Shakespeare’s original. Dixon’s stage presence, especially as Paulina, is commanding; and one senses that her fellow actors know they must achieve their best performances to keep from being overshadowed.

I must also underscore the performance of Rondale Gray (Cleomenes, Mariner, Florizel), whose energy and athleticism seem a throwback to the King’s Men themselves. The entire cast is wonderful, even those players not mentioned here in the interest of brevity.

I know I’ve experienced a great production when I begin to see a play I already know well in new ways. The ISF production of The Winter’s Tale definitely accomplished that. As mentioned earlier, we believe the play was first performed in 1611, and Shakespeare may have written it after an especially deadly outbreak of the plague which closed the London theaters for most of 1609 and 1610. The Festival’s staging of The Winter’s Tale seemed like history repeating itself. I felt great joy at being back in the Festival’s Globe-like theater after nearly two years, but I couldn’t help thinking of the half million Americans who lost their lives to Covid in the meantime (a half million and counting). In this context, the two distinct moods of the play seem exactly right: the fear and the darkness attached to the years of pestilence, contrasted with the pure joy of having survived when so many others did not. The theatergoers who saw the earliest performances of The Winter’s Tale must have felt a similar relief to what my wife and I experienced last night: the delight of returning to something close to normal, after so much fear and anxiety.

Moreover, in the play’s presentation of an out-of-control king who insists on a reality he has created from his own deluded imagination, I thought of what the country has experienced for the last five years (and continues to experience). I felt the desperation of Leontes’ councilors as they tried to bring him to his senses before destroying everything in the wake of his ego-driven fury. But no logic can alter his absurd ideas, not even a proclamation from Apollo’s oracle.

Finally, what about the bear? Those familiar with The Winter’s Tale know it has one of the oddest stage directions in the Shakespeare canon (presumably written by the Bard himself, and not a later editor). From Act 3, scene 3: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” We don’t know what Shakespeare had in mind. Some like to believe the King’s Men brought a live bear onstage to pursue Antigonus. Thanks to the popularity of bear-baiting in Shakespeare’s day and the popularity of performing bears, there were plenty of bears to be had in London, both wild and tamed. There were bear-baiting pits near the Globe in fact. Some believe Shakespeare had an actor dress in a bear costume, or maybe it was a special effect (a sound made offstage perhaps).

When I saw the Festival’s production in 2011, the director went with an enormous silhouette of a bear projected onto the stage’s backdrop along with a terrifying series of roars amplified via the sound system. It was neat. So when one attends a performance of The Winter’s Tale, there’s always the intriguing issue of how they will handle the bear.

You wish . . . you’ll just have to go see for yourself. Performances of The Winter’s Tale, along with Measure for Measure, will run throughout July into the first week of August. Go. You deserve it.

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