Review: “The Winter’s Tale”

Evelyn (Ayanna Bria Bakari, from left), Sally-Mae (Jennifer Latimore), and Tony (Cage Sebastian Pierre) are surprised and upset when Bowzie (Jalen Gilbert) tells them he’s decided to defer college to become a Freedom Rider. ­(Photo by Lara Goetsch)

RECOMMENDED

Where: Goodman Theatre, Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through June 9
Tickets: $20-$80
Phone: 312-443-3800

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater critic

Director Robert Falls’ audacious approach to Shakespeare pays off in the production of “The Winter’s Tale” currently in the Goodman’s Albert Theatre.

This is a troublesome play, arguably deeply flawed in several ways, yet Falls manages to more-or-less make sense of the drastic mix of comedy and tragedy, the hairpin turns in tone, and plot devices that defy belief.

Typical is the way he turns the Bard’s most famous stage direction, “exit, pursued by a bear,” into a dramatic motif. That direction occurs after poor Antigonus (Gregory Linington) reluctantly obeys the orders of his master, Leontes, King of Sicilia (Dan Donohue), and abandons the infant daughter of the king’s wife, Hermione (Kate Fry), on the ground in Bohemia. Falls transforms Antigonus’ action, which prompts the bear to pursue and eat him, into an heroic act of self-sacrifice, and also links the bear back to the general domestic tragedy.

In the opening scenes—and on the program cover—Leontes’ young son Mamillius (Charlie Herman) appears in a bear suit, and his father even frolics with him in it. Initially, there’s a playful air at court, as Hermione, Leontes, and his long-time friend Polixenes (Nathan Hosner) banter on a plush carpet in front of the reflective movable panels of Walt Spangler’s simple set. They wear costume designer Ana Kuzmanic’s thirtyish formal attire—tuxes for the men, an emerald green gown for the very pregnant queen—capped by paper crowns, emphasizing the idea that we are watching a tale not reality.

The royals are discussing Polixenes desire to return to Bohemia where he is king. Leontes entreats him to stay longer in Sicilia, to no avail; Hermione has better luck after some persuasion.

This sparks Leontes unfounded jealousy. He orders his right-hand man Camillo (Henry Godinez) to murder Polixenes, but instead this sensible soul helps his potential victim escape and flees with him to Bohemia.

Suspecting that Hermione’s unborn child is Polixenes’, Leontes accuses and arrests her, throwing her in prison where the baby is born. The unhappy queen’s attendant, Paulina (Christiana Clark), hopes that seeing his daughter with soften Leontes, but he seizes that child and hands it over to Antigonus, Paulina’s husband, to be abandoned. All his advisers object, but Leontes won’t relent, even after the Oracle says he’s got it all wrong. Only when Mamillius collapses and dies of grief over the loss of his mother and Hermione is reported dead, too, does Leontes realize he’s transgressed horribly.

Despite the storybook elements, the first half of the evening unfolds fairly naturalistically. Thanks to Donohue’s unstinting performance, we have no sympathy for Leontes’ stupidity, hatefulness, and misuse of authority, even though Falls does an uncommonly good job of suggesting how he could have been misled. Fry’s Hermione is compelling in her insistence on her innocence, and Clark’s fierce defense of her mistress as Paulina not only stops the show, it also sets up her important role in the finale.

Spangler’s scenic design is versatile enough to support the radical switches from Sicilia to Bohemia and back, and the reflective panels allow us to see several key incidents and activities that are only reported in the script. Add Aaron Spivey’s lighting—including a striking thunderstorm—and Rickard Woodbury’s original music and sound design, and all the technical components are first-rate.

The pastoral fantasy of the second half is a little harder to take. After the baby girl is abandoned by Antingonus, with a box of gold and belongings key to her identity, she’s found by the Old Shepherd (Tim Monsion) and his son, the Clown (Will Allan). Then, presto, Time (Mark Lancaster) appears to tell us that 16 years have passed. The baby has grown up to be the lovely shepherd’s daughter, Perdita (Chloe Baldwin), who is in love with prince Florizel (Xavier Bleuel), Polixenes’ son.

Falls and his designers shift gears, creating a Bohemia peopled by yokels and sheep, including one giant one. The costumes are country farmer with hints of the ‘50s and indeterminate decades, though Perdita wears a timeless gown that conjures a woman in a Botticelli painting. The text has been trimmed to pretty good effect, and the language has been tarted up with contemporary curses, sometimes jarringly.

Compared to the first half, there’s relatively little plot, and the proceedings get bogged down a bit by the antics of con artist Autolycus (Philip Earl Johnson), who is eager to fleece anyone he can, and the sheep-sheering festival replete with music and dancing (choreographed by Tommy Rapley) that’s pleasant but not as inspired as it could be. This fest functions mainly as an excuse for Polixenes and Camillo to come in disguise to glean what’s going on with Florizel and Perdita, whereupon they unmask, and Polixenes is determined to separate and punish the young lovers—acting, as Falls makes clear—with the same autocratic anger as Leontes did years before.

But Camillo, who has longed to return to his Sicilian homeland, has a plan and, as improbable as it is, everyone ends up back in Sicilia, where the grieving Leontes has locked himself up all this time. There are revelations and reconciliations all around, among them the fact that Perdita is a princess, which makes her union with Florizel okay with Polixenes, and a magical finale with Paulina seemingly bringing the statue of Hermione to life.

When all is said and done, I still think that “The Winter’s Tale” gets more credit for profundity than it deserves, but Falls’ production shows that it offers a worthy challenge to a talented director.