One of Shakespeare’s later works, “The Winter’s Tale” has confounded interpreters for hundreds of years with its whiplash-inducing shifts in tone and style. Like the other late-career plays that are generally grouped together as the “romances”—“Pericles,” “Cymbeline,” “The Two Noble Kinsmen” and “The Tempest”—“Winter’s Tale” sees the Bard throwing every theatrical device and mood he’s accumulated in his inventory into one epically improbable story.
But “Winter’s Tale” might be the weirdest of them all, with its hard turn from two and a half acts of darkness and despair into frolicsome pastoral comedy. That’s followed by a brief swerve back toward tragedy, then a course correction into a relatively happy ending that involves a statue coming to life. At one point Time itself is personified on stage to introduce the concept of the flash-forward. And somewhere in there is the finest stage direction in Shakespeare’s entire body of work: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
‘The Winter’s Tale’
When: Through June 9
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $20 – $80
Run time: 2 hours 15 minutes, with one intermission
With his new revival, director Robert Falls is tackling Shakespeare for just the fourth time in his 30-plus years as the Goodman Theatre’s artistic director. In the pages of this newspaper earlier this month, Falls said of “Winter’s Tale” that “I’ve been working on it for a year and I barely know what it’s about.”
That might not seem to inspire confidence. But it’s possible, I’d argue, to love this play and to understand it deeply without ever fully knowing “what it’s about.”
Here’s the basic outline of the fractious fairy-tale plot: Leontes (Dan Donohue), king of Sicilia, and Polixenes (Nathan Hosner), king of Bohemia, are lifelong best friends who grew up “as twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ the sun.” As the play opens, Polixenes is refusing Leontes’ exhortations to further extend an already long visit to Sicilia; when Polixenes relents at the behest of Leontes’ pregnant wife, Hermione (Kate Fry), Leontes is almost instantly overtaken by what another Shakespearean villain dubbed the green-eyed monster.
Blinded with jealous rage and irrationally convinced his wife is carrying his friend’s baby, Leontes calls for Hermione to be arrested and Polixenes to be assassinated. The king’s conscientious servant Camillo (Henry Godinez), rather than poisoning Polixenes as ordered, instead helps him to escape. Meanwhile, Leontes’ poisoned mind leads him to shun his newborn daughter and order the baby exiled and abandoned. When he refutes even the verdict of Apollo’s oracle that this is all in his head, it causes his older child Mamillius (Charlie Herman) to die of shame and Hermione in turn to die of grief.
So it’s unavoidably jarring when we then shift to Bohemia, where Laertes’ baby daughter is rescued by a comic-relief shepherd (Tim Monsion) and his doofus son (Will Allan). Cue the flash forward, and we’re (at least temporarily) in a bawdy pastoral comedy peopled with dimwitted hicks and a trickster thief named Autolycus (Philip Earl Johnson).
Here we learn that Leontes and Hermione’s now-teenage daughter Perdita (Chloe Baldwin), unaware of her royal heritage, has nevertheless fallen in love with Bohemia’s prince—and Polixenes’ son—Florizel (Xavier Bleuel). A snooping Polixenes forbids the pairing, but practical Camillo sets in motion a happy ending that will culminate in a seemingly miraculous resurrection.
It’s a lot to process. And to Falls’s credit, he keeps things (almost) as simple as possible. In his last two Shakespeare outings, 2006’s “King Lear” and 2013’s “Measure for Measure,” Falls’s ostentatious concepts could seem to overwhelm the scripts. Working hand-in-hand with Walt Spangler’s big, bold sets and Ana Kuzmanic’s statement-piece costume designs, the 20th-century debauchery in which Falls placed those productions—mid-’90s Balkan corruption for “Lear,” mid-’70s disco depravity for “Measure”—constituted enterprising showmanship that sometimes distracted from the plays themselves.
Working here with those same designers, Falls crafts a Sicilia that’s practically minimalist in comparison. Spangler’s set is all black drapes and big windows and Kuzmanic’s costumes for the play’s first half stay grounded in standard modern dress, allowing the human-scaled tragedy to take focus. (Things do get wackier in Bohemia, when Spangler’s taste for grand set pieces and Falls’s love of classic rock both rear their heads.)
Falls also goes for an aggressive cutting of the script, with this “Winter’s Tale” coming in at just 135 minutes including the intermission. Most of his trims are welcome — extraneous exposition delivered by tertiary characters.
But Falls’s edit also exposes just how extreme Shakespeare’s plot twists can be. In this production’s first five minutes, Donohue’s expertly essayed Leontes veers from playful husband and friend to completely unhinged. In the minus column, we don’t really get to know or care for the grownup Perdita given Falls’s breakneck speed.
All told, this is a compelling take on a notoriously difficult but rewarding script. I haven’t even mentioned what might be this show’s most blistering performance: that of the stunning Christiana Clark, who thoroughly owns the stage in the role of Hermione’s staunch defender Paulina. And Falls also draws attention to the plot’s prime injustice, even if he can’t quite solve it. “The Winter’s Tale” is a bear of a play; seeing Falls wrestle with it is worth your time.
Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.