A Winter’s Tale is not Shakespeare’s most produced play. In fact, it lives on the tier of the Bard’s work that primarily elicits the response “huh?” when mentioned to any but the most knowledgeable Shakespeare fans. If anything, people know it for containing Shakespeare’s most notoriously absurd stage direction: [exit, pursued by a bear]. That particular bit of humorous wording was all I knew of of this Shakespearean “romance” (a word which here means “Shakespeare play that doesn’t fit neatly into any of the other categories”) before attending the Goodman Theatre’s current production, directed by artistic director Robert Falls.
The play starts in a dark, Othello-esque place: the king, for no particular reason, decides his pregnant wife Hermione must be cheating on him with his brother and throws her in jail despite the protests of literally everyone onstage. Hermione is put on trial and makes a powerful speech in her own defense (delivered with great passion and skill by Kate Fry), only to be declared guilty because the king is so committed to the false narrative he’s created that he refuses to listen to anyone else despite overwhelming evidence he is wrong. Good thing nothing like that happens anymore.
Several characters die, Hermione’s baby is abandoned in the wilderness, and that bear, portrayed here by an actor in a startlingly convincing bear suit, does indeed chase Antigonus offstage. The play then jumps ahead sixteen years in time, using the subtle literary device of the character Time (played with delightful ostentatiousness by Mark Lancaster) appearing onstage to announce we’ve jumped forward sixteen years as well as changed locations. This location change is also indicated by the appearance of a giant sheep puppet, which in another context might have been unbearably tacky, but here is utterly delightful and used to great comedic effect. From there, the center of the plot becomes Perdita, the king and Hermione’s daughter, who has been raised as a shepherd’s daughter but becomes the lover of the prince (who’s her cousin, but let’s just gloss over that with “it was a different time” and move on). Dancing, flirting, and hijinks ensue until Perdita’s true identity is revealed.
It’s a weird story. But in the hands of Robert Falls, it manages to makes sense. It helps, of course, to have such a stellar team of actors and designers on hand to iron out the wrinkles of a strange bit of storytelling. Scenic design by Walt Spangler and costumes by Ana Kuzmanic execute the transition from the grimdark castle of the first half to the frolicking, flower petal-laden countryside of the second. The lighting (by Aaron Spivey), sets, costumes, and staging of the final scene, in which most of the cast visits a lifelike statue of Hermione, is beautiful, ethereal, and so utterly transfixing that it sells the unexplained magic of the play’s conclusion flawlessly.
Standout actors included Philip Earl Johnson, who tumbles easily into the role of charming crook as his character Autolycus robs, schemes, and scams his way to comic relief in the second half. I also admired the work of Christiana Clark, who played Paulina, the queen’s best friend and staunchest defender, a woman who refuses to be silenced by men when there is justice to be had. Clark plays the role with a fierceness and depth of emotion that make her scenes among the most compelling onstage.
If you go see one Shakespeare play in your life, don’t make it A Winter’s Tale. But if you go see A Winter’s Tale once in your life (and that may be all you need), see it in its current iteration at the Goodman.
Location: The Albert, The Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago
Dates: May 4 – June 9, 2019
Tickets: $20 – $80; subject to change. Available at the Goodman Theatre’s website, by telephone at 312.443.3800 or at the box office (170 N. Dearborn).
All photos by Liz Lauren.