If you don’t know what’s coming in The Winter’s Tale, now at Great Lakes Theater, you may feel you wandered back after intermission and were transported into a different play.
After a chilly first act filled with jealous rages and tyrannically callous rulings, culminating in deaths, the second act opens on a storybook land of happy people, singing and dancing, and general merriment. Say what?
Welcome to the fractured world of this Shakespearean “problem” play, where magical thinking and mystical happenings rule the day. And while there are definite pleasures to be had in this production, director Jesse Berger hangs first-time observers of this confusing play out to dry.
In Sicilia, King Leontes, proud father of young son Mamillius, is all bro-mantic with longtime friend and guest, King Polixenes of Bohemia. But soon fevered Leontes thinks he detects some hanky-panky between his pregnant wife Hermione and his old buddy.
So the innocent Polixenes (a strong Lynn Robert Berg) books and Leontes confines his queen and son to a dungeon where she gives birth to a girl, whom Leontes orders be banished and left to expire in nature (thinking it is Pol’s kid). Later, Leontes learns that Hermione and his beloved son have both died under his repressive rule, hectored along the way by Paulina, Hermione’s close friend.
After all that sturm and drang, the second act opens 16 years later in Bohemia, a happy land where the baby Perdita, rescued by a Shepherd and his son, has grown into a lovely young miss in love with Prince Florizel, the son of Polixenes.
The lovebirds eventually make their way back to Sicilia, where a happy reunion occurs, a statue of Hermione is unveiled, and magic happens.
The first act ripples with anger, mostly due to David Anthony Smith as Leontes. Trouble is, his outrage is so sudden and florid, it seems comical at times, recalling many of Smith's funny performances at exactly the wrong time. Lise Bruneau does what she can with the inhumanely noble and passive Hermione, willingly going off to her hubby’s slammer even though she is blameless.
Some of the sharpest riffs are delivered by an excellent Laurie Birmingham as Paulina, who is the only one in the court with sufficient balls to tell Leontes he’s a jerk.
When the baby is left on a shore to fend for herself, the servant who put her there, Antigonus, is chased and eaten by a bear (calling up the famous stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a Bear.”).
Once in the hippy haven of Bohemia, Perdita and Lorizel show off their fondness with great warmth, in the persons of Kimbre Lancaster and Miles Gaston Villanueva. But the comic relief supposedly afforded by the Shepherd and his son is undercut by predictable schtick cranked out by, respectively, M.A. Taylor and Juan Rivera Lebron.
But that’s nothing compared to the over-the-top antics of Tom Ford as the rogue Autolycus. Assaulting the stage like Rip Taylor on speed, Ford stretches his admittedly adept comic skills until they snap and unravel. After all, directorial indulgence of an actor’s whims should observe some limits.
There are many fascinating themes in this piece involving the salving effects of time, the conflict between art and nature, and the destructive power of jealousy.
But many of these intriguing ideas are buried under the difficult structure of the play itself. There should be some way to help the uninitiated through this welter of confusion, but it isn’t provided by director Berger.
That said, it must be noted that the scenic design by David M. Barber is entirely enthralling. The costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti, however, often look like the scene after a particularly nasty explosion in a costume shop.
And the bear, while large and astounding, seems more suited to another play. As do several of the performances themselves.
The Winter’s Tale
Through November 4 at Great Lakes Theater, 2067 E. 14th Street, 216-241-6000