Heading into Goodman Theatre’s production of The Winter’s Tale, I knew little about the play save for its reputation as one of William Shakespeare’s most confounding works. Written in the Bard’s later years, its drastic tonal shifts refuse neat categorization into “tragedy” or “comedy,” and critics have endlessly pondered both Shakespeare’s intentions and the play’s performance value as a result. Under the artful direction of Robert Falls, though, Goodman’s production takes this Shakespearean challenge head-on, embracing both its intense drama and humor. Falls’ take is stylistically stunning and wonderfully acted, but the adaptations’ own inconsistencies diminish its overall effect.
The first act begins with a bang, as King Leontes (Dan Donohue) of Sicilia turns to the audience mere moments into the play, stricken with jealousy, and details his suspicions that his wife (Hermione, played by Kate Fry) is having an affair. Leontes’ conjecture quickly becomes an obsession, and he dogmatically pursues revenge against Hermione, her ‘lover,’ and the unborn child he now believes to be a bastard. Turmoil unfurls rapidly, yet by the end of the act, things seem brighter, both literally and physically, as we follow the infant babe, banished by her father, to Bohemia.
In stark contrast to the death, despair, and drama of Act I, Act II is filled with music, laughter, and general jubilance; conman Autolycus (Philip Earl Johnson) becomes the show’s light-fingered/hearted narrator, and the pervasive doomsday perspective is swapped for the kind of naive optimism found only in young love. The two tales--that of Leontes' destructive actions and long repentance and that of the star-crossed lovers in Bohemia--converge in a finale that attempts to reconcile these disparate stories.
Similar to the play itself, Goodman’s production succeeds more in presenting the story lines separately than in marrying them. Falls’ take on Act I is beautifully cohesive; Donohue’s dive into madness is gripping, and Christiana Clark’s (as Paulina) powerful defense of Hermione prompted spontaneous applause on opening night. The set design (Walt Spangler), lighting (Aaron Spivey) and costumes (Ana Kuzmanic), add an eerie, ghostlike quality to the tale (foreshadowing events in Act II), all of which further reinforces the gravity of Leontes’ crazed actions.
In Act II, Bohemia is presented in a story-like fashion, with oversized sheep and shepherds acting as the backdrop, and pink-confetti littering the floor (and characters’ costumes as they walk through it). This shift fits the story, but the vision doesn’t quite remain fixed; while our first act retained Shakespeare’s language, in Act II, we see frequent shifts into modernity (“fuck the sheep!” being the most memorable instance). There’s Beatles music and cars and 80s-tastic hairstyles, giving the sense that time and place have shifted without clearly defining to where. The script, it must be noted, has jumped 16 years into the future too, but the stark difference in language was what struck me the most; the rules of Falls’ world seemed overall unclear, and the audience’s diminishing interest at the beginning of Act II was almost palpable as a result.
The return to Sicilia for the finale does an admirable job of mixing the minimalist form of Act I with some of the artistic embellishments of Act II. This return to form refocuses the production’s time and space, which in turn re-engages the audience before fading to black. So what’s the verdict here? The Winter’s Tale is visually breathtaking and overall engaging, but, like a Chicago “spring,” the transitions can be jarring. (Emily Schmidt)
The Winter's Tale runs at Goodman Theatre through June 9. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.
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