Shakespeare can be heavy lifting. All those fardles and bodkins to bear and bare. Modern audiences struggle, though usually they go in with at least a rough idea of what to expect, such as the too-familiar Hamlet, bearing his troubles — fardles — while trying not to end it all with a naked knife, aka, a bare bodkin. King Lear, Macbeth, Richard III, all familiar stories.
But “The Winter’s Tale”? I read both an analysis by Harold Bloom and an essay in The Riverside Shakespeare and was still lost; a problem, because the Sun-Times and the Goodman Theatre are giving away 25 pairs of tickets to the May 16 performance.
I can’t urge you to see a play that I don’t understand.
Trying to do better than “something about a king,” I had lunch with Robert Falls, who is directing the play at the Goodman.
Falls, for the unfamiliar, is the bad boy of Chicago theater. His previous foray into Shakespeare, “Measure for Measure,” had audiences nearly rioting in their seats. Before that, “King Lear” … well, the phrase “eyeballs sizzling on a grill” should give a sense of the impact.
The bar is high. How will “The Winter’s Tale” top those?
“It won’t,” Falls said. “It’s an extremely difficult production. They’re all difficult plays. But this one … we’ll see. I’m worried it’ll disappoint you, Neil. No eye-gouging. No severe violence. No nudity. No in-your-face stuff.”
Nothing’s perfect. But the play — what’s the play about?
“I’ve been working on it for a year and I barely know what it’s about,” replied Falls.
Ah. That’s good, right? I said, trying to rally. Frees you up. No burdensome preconceptions. No famous soliloquies to make fresh. But back to that plot. A theatrical construct, right?
“It is,” said Falls. “It’s ‘Once upon a time there was a jealous king.’ The first act is very, very dark, and domestic, a domestic tragedy, about the king, his jealousy, the loss of his son, the banishment of his daughter.”
Sort of Othello II?
“The thing with ‘Othello’ is, it takes Shakespeare at least an hour of Iago pouring poison into Othello’s ear and laying out a case,” said Falls. “This is like ‘Othello’ on speed. It starts out: ‘I’m saying goodbye to my very best friend in the world, he’s been here for nine months. I love him. I love my wife. He loves my wife. He loves me. Everything’s been fine.’ He looks over and says, ‘Look at the two of them, paddling palms. touching fingers, practicing smiles.’ He basically becomes jealous in the second page of the play. Suddenly he’s convinced his wife is having an affair and that child is possibly not his.”
Why, in the vast sweep of drama, pick “The Winter’s Tale”?
“I don’t know,” said Falls. “It’s a play that’s always disturbed me and I also found incredibly beautiful. I know people who say this is one of their favorites. That statue scene, an extraordinary moment …” and here I’ll skip Falls’ description of that particular scene, so as not to spoil it for those who’ll attend with me. “It is one of the great, great, great, great scenes in all of Shakespeare.”
But troublesome. Make no mistake. “Jersey Boys” this is not.
“It’s a thorny play, the text,” said Falls. “It’s tough, very thorny, difficult language. It’s notoriously difficult. ‘Winters Tale’ turns Greek at times. The first hour is the most harrowing hour of drama Shakespeare wrote. Domestic tragedy and violence. Then it turns into slapstick comedy, with clowns and music.”
Tragedy blending into farce that isn’t on CNN? Sign me up. The bottom line is, the Goodman is giving away 25 pairs of tickets to the May 16 performance, and there’s a reception beforehand where we can gobble hors d’oeuvres and talk Shakespeare. Though act quickly — entries are accepted, either filling out a coupon in the paper or online, and only until May 9.
If you don’t win, I’d encourage you to bite the bullet and buy tickets anyway, because the thing with Robert Falls plays, I can guarantee this: They are never time wasted. Don’t let his self-effacement fool you. I’ve attended his plays for 35 years and Falls picking “The Winter’s Tale” is like Houdini shackling himself upside down in a water-filled glass box. The bigger the difficulty, the greater the triumph. Good luck. See you May 16.