“A sad tale’s best for winter.” So says the young son of King Leontes of Sicilia in William Shakespeare’s comedic, romantic, and tragic play, The Winter’s Tale, playing through June 9 at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. Originally written over 400 years ago, The Winter’s Tale, as revived by Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls, is difficult to describe in a few words. The plot does indeed have sad elements, including the son’s fate. But if you want to see excellent actors, honest emotions, high drama, and slapstick comedy blended together in an impressive production, head to the Goodman. This spring’s Falls Winter’s Tale is a must-see.
The story begins with Leontes (Dan Donohue) encouraging his long-time friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia, to extend his visit. Polixenes (Nathan Hosner) is only persuaded to stay when Hermione (Kate Fry), queen to Leontes, asks Polixenes to do so. As Leontes watches his friend and wife converse and laugh, “paddling palms and pinching fingers,” his jealousy begins to grow to the point where he suspects that his wife’s current pregnancy, and perhaps a previous one, came about because of an affair with his friend.
Leontes orders a trusted aide, Camillo (Henry Godinez), to poison Polixenes, but Camillo can’t do it, instead informing Polixenes of the danger. The two flee to Bohemia. When Leontes discovers they’re gone, he is even more convinced of his wife’s adultery, imprisoning her. To soothe others’ doubts of her infidelity, he sends two other associates to an oracle on the island of Delphos. The oracle is a trusted authority and seer who he believes will confirm his suspicions.
Trust me – I haven’t spoiled the plot for you. All of that drama occurs in roughly the first 25 minutes of this 2½-hour (including intermission) play. While more dire events do subsequently unfold in Sicilia and on a barren Bohemian beach (where the famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear” is depicted), the middle of the play – most of it taking place 16 years later – stimulates laughter, not gasps. Just the “shear” sight of two huge set pieces signaled the change of tone shortly before intermission. And when the show restarted, a guitar-playing con man and pickpocket, Autolycus (Philip Earl Johnson), broke the “fourth wall” to engage the audience before finding his next mark on stage. Romance, disguises, dancing, anachronisms (e.g., music from the 20th century), and a miraculous climax all add to the novel presentation of this story.
Behind-the-scenes praise is well-deserved for Falls, set designer Walt Spangler, and dramaturg Neena Arndt. Costume designer Ana Kuzmanic also impressed with her widely varied costumes, ranging from the formalwear worn by Leontes, Polixenes, and Hermione in the first scene to a child-sized bear suit to colorful outfits for Bohemia’s younger generation.
Dramatic and comedic actors have all been well cast here. Donohue and Fry made me believe they felt every drop of the natural emotions of Sicilia’s vengeful king and wrongly accused queen. Christiana Clark, who plays Paulina – a strong defender of the queen’s innocence – is a forceful actress who the audience wanted to applaud in multiple scenes. Johnson, Tim Monsion (Old Shepherd), and Will Allan (Clown/Shepherd’s Son) are deft comedians who play off each other extremely well. The first scene featuring Monsion and Allan as they search for lost sheep only to find two people instead made me think I was watching a hilarious PG-13 version of a “Carol Burnett Show” sketch. (RIP, Tim Conway.)
In summary, while purists who want to hear every single word exactly as Shakespeare wrote it in the 1600s may be disappointed, this reviewer felt that Falls’ abridged version with bits of updated dialogue is a Tale to exit for, whether pursued by a bear or not.
• Paul Lockwood is a past president of TownSquare Players (TSP) and an occasional community theater actor, appearing in over 30 plays, musicals, and revues since he and his wife moved to Woodstock in 2001. Recent shows include 42nd Street, Once Upon a Mattress, On Golden Pond, 9 to 5: The Musical, A Christmas Carol (2014, 2016), and Into the Woods, and an upcoming July production of Morning’s at Seven at Ridgefield-Crystal Lake Presbyterian Church.