Produced by First Folio Theatre, Oak Brook
A Captivating Winter Story this July
Outdoor theatre in the Midwest is always tense, because you never know if rain or thunder might prevent you from hearing the end of the story. That’s especially true with The Winter’s Tale, the late Shakespeare drama that seems to abruptly switch tones following intermission, and therefore, might leave you with a fragment of a story that is very different from its end. That problem, at least, has been eliminated in the production at First Folio directed by Alison C. Vesely, whose judicious cuts and choices guiding the actors have made the story not only coherent, but a study on how emotions can overwhelm us as suddenly and irresistibly as the weather. Or, perhaps, like an angry bear.
Leontes (Kevin McKillip), King of Sicily, values only his wife, Hermione (Melissa Carlson) and son, Mamillius (Ann Marie White), above his best friend from childhood, the Bohemian king Polixenes (Kevin Theis). They delight in telling Hermione how they were inseparable as boys, and the truest of companions. But Polixenes has a country to run now, and cannot stay visiting Sicily forever, so he resists Leontes’s begging for him to stay. He does, however, heed Hermione’s pleas, and Leontes becomes deeply suspicious. In a flash of insane jealousy, he orders his cupbearer, Camillo (Kyle Haden) to poison Polixenes, but Camillo, recognizing Leontes’s madness, defects, and helps Polixenes escape. Leontes then turns his wrath upon Hermione, who is in the process of giving birth to a daughter, which Leontes is certain is not his own. Over the objections of the nobles and servants, he orders the baby to be slain, but is persuaded at the last minute to have her abandoned in the Bohemian countryside, instead.
Of course, that never works. But before a time jump during intermission, we see Leontes receive word that Hermione and Mamillius died suddenly, too late to be vindicated by an oracle who proclaims him a tyrant. His madness leaves him as quickly as it came, but the repercussions of his rash actions last for years. Kevin McKillip finds a way of keeping Leontes consistent during and after his attack of paranoia, since that’s clearly what it is. Even as a kind-hearted true penitent, Leontes seems a little unbalanced, and is always prone towards emotional extremes. The productions begin with the actors strolling across the lawn from their dressing room to the stage in their white, black, and gold costumes designed by Rachel Lambert, looking like cultists, and carrying the giant bear puppet. The existence of an oracle and the famously ambiguous end scene could support the idea that magic exists in this universe, and the bear’s glowing red eyes could be taken as evidence that in Vesely and Rice’s production, there is something otherworldly at work which may be impacting Leontes, as well.
But regardless of whether Leontes is under some kind of supernatural influence or just plain crazy, Diana Coates, as the much more down-to-earth Paulina, breaks out as a star. A noblewoman who is friend to the queen, Paulina is a fierce advocate for justice while everyone else is confused and tries to humor the Sicilian king, while ignoring his orders as much as possible. Coates’s performance is crafty, and paces Paulina’s change of tactics from gently and firmly guiding Leontes, to openly resisting his deranged demands. Her motivation is clearly to safeguard everyone’s well-being, but Paulina has an ego as well, and Coates has her delight in punishing Leontes later, and presenting the apparition at the play’s end to her onstage and offstage audiences. The only problem is that the directors rush the entrances in the second act, so that some of Paulina’s verbal jabs don’t quite land under the sound of clunking boots.
McKillip and Coates have a strong supporting cast to play off of, particularly when they’re appealing to crowds. Melissa Carlson’s proud Hermione is no puppet to be abused and then forgive, but a brave, resilient woman who holds herself to a high standard. The darkly comic Michael Joseph Mitchell gets a lot of time onstage as both Antigonus, Paulina’s husband who is charged with removing the baby, and the shepherd who raises the girl, in the sort of doubling Shakespeare aficionados love to mull over. Ann Marie White returns as the grown-up princess Perdita, and forms a likeable couple with Ryan Czerwonko’s Florizel. The elimination of Autolycus and most of the Act IV revels reduces these characters’ prominence, but was a wise move in that it shortened the play to a reasonable time, and kept the story on track. But to make the point about life’s renewal, Lambert has costumed the Act II characters in festive, rustic colors, in contrast with the metallic formality of Act I.
I think it’s fair to say that of Shakespeare’s well-known plays, productions of The Winter’s Tale may be some of the most anticipated, because there are so many ways a director could choose to interpret it. The First Folio version delivers all a Shakespeare fan could hope for, and is an excellent opportunity for those unfamiliar with the work to fall in love with it. Though risky, the outdoor nighttime setting is a major contributor to the play’s magical aura, and makes the language easier to accept as a positive feature of something that only exists on rare, special occasions. It’s a production that makes me want to believe that The Winter’s Tale’s ending involves sorcery, instead of the mundane explanation, because the staging has set up a miracle so well. Don’t waste a dry day this summer, make sure to see this play.
Reviewed July 11, 2015
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see The Winter’s Tale’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at the Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W 31st St, Oak Brook, Illinois. Tickets are $29-39; to order, call 630-986-8067 or visit firstfolio.org. Performances are Wednesdays through Sundays at 8:15 pm through August 2. Running time is two hours and ten minutes with one intermission.