Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Winter’s Tale, Cleveland Shakespeare Festival

(Front and center, Allen Branstein as Autolycus.)

There’s a saying that “time heals all wounds,” along with its comic corollary “time wounds all heels.” Both would seem to be true in the romantic The Winter's Tale, that combines tragedy and silliness while spanning a couple decades until a happy ending is earned for all.

In some Shakespeare plays, you have to work your way up to climactic moments and profound emotions. But in this somewhat haphazard work, now being shown around town for free by the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival, the heavy stuff is mostly front-loaded. The CleveShakes company handles the significant challenges posed by this play with dexterity, although there are blips in an otherwise smooth production.

Early on, King Leontes gets his Sicilian panties in a bunch because he thinks King Polixenes of Bohemia is boffing Leontes’ wife Hermione. True to the playbook for paranoid and jealous husbands everywhere, Leon won’t listen to reason or even an oracle who gives everyone a pass. So Leontes puts Hermione on trial and she’s sent to jail, pregnant with what Leontes thinks is the other king’s child.

The king and queen of Sicilia are well served by Camillo (Steven Madden), a nobleman who refuses to poison Polixenes when Leontes orders it, and Paulina (a sharp and stalwart Reagan Kendrick), the fierce friend of Hermione through thick and thin.

As Leontes, Aaron Elersich has a nice brooding look and, dressed in contemporary garb, he has the lean and brooding appearance of Jerry Orbach during his Law & Order phase. But Elersich’s line readings, often either forced or flat, aren’t able to bring dimension to the depths of his character’s free-range nihilism. In the smaller role of Polixenes, Eric Perusek is strong and Cassie Neumann makes Hermione a sympathetic figure, right up to her apparent death.

Meanwhile, the child Hermione bore, named Perdita, has been rescued from a Leontes-ordered death by a kindly shepherd (played with masterly aplomb and lovely vocal precision by Larry Seman) and Clown, his son. (Here’s a tip: If you decide to name your son Clown, chances are he will turn out to be a buffoon, but probably not nearly as funny as Nathan Miller’s version.)

Of course, as our old buddy Will is famous for, there are more confusions in store and sure enough, after that aforementioned passage of time, Perdita (Liz Jones) and Polixenes’ son Florizel (Jack Matuszewski) fall in love. This all happens in fantastical Bohemia, where a cutpurse named Autolycus (Allen Branstein in full and frenzied wack-a-doodle mode) keeps the audience laughing.

This is the cue for the magic to take hold, as Leontes reunites with his kid and Hermione turns from a memorial statue back into herself, reuniting with a chastened Leontes. Director Tyson Douglas Rand pumps up the comedy, which works nicely, but the two halves of this oddly constructed play never quite jell.

But it’s still a damn fine way to spend a summer evening.

The Winter’s Tale
Through August 2 at various
outdoor locations, see their
Web site for details: www.cleveshakes.org

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