Who decided it would be a good idea to give one guy ultimate control over everything, anyway? The “big cheese” model of leadership has been with us ever since the warlords of Babylon deposed the goddess Ishtar and set up the warrior-god Marduk in her place, and it’s still going strong today, despite massive evidence that it tends to screw things up royally. A Winter’s Tale, now being produced as a Free Shakespeare in the Park performance by Optimist Theatre, is a case in point.
It begins when the King—Leontes—swallows a spider. Not literally; in one of the weirdest and least-quoted of Shakespeare’s metaphors, he compares his sudden virulent attack of jealousy to a man who, accidentally swallowing a spider, can’t stop thinking about it. What Leontes noticed was his Queen, Hermione, being especially nice to another King, Polixines—because he’s his best buddy and he told her to be! Nonetheless, he goes crazy, makes unfounded accusations—despite everyone telling him how crazy he’s being—puts Hermione in prison, tries to poison Polixines, and orders his newborn daughter to be exposed to the elements (which seems to have been an occupational hazard of heirs to the throne in those days). His son dies of shock or something; Hermione, weak from childbirth and grief, is pronounced dead. “A sad tale is best for winter,” as the prince said just before it all went down. This catastrophic action leads directly to the rest of the play—which (spoiler) is happy, despite a couple of kings acting like entitled asses.
Men behaving badly is no new theme for Shakespeare; Lear and Othello come to mind as gents whose irrational insecurity about being loved leads to less than ideal results. A Winter’s Tale, on the other hand, is rarely produced, and it’s not hard to see why: the characters are not as subtly-drawn as in the grander tragedies; the plot is more improbable than most; and the first act, which takes the majority of the three hours’ running time, basically repeats the same plot points over and over and over, as if the Bard was never quite sure he really got his point across: that kings should not be douchenozzles.
The Optimist production, playing in open air at the futuristic Kadish Park bandshell, does the best it can with this quirky, unwieldy fable. Wisely, director ML Cogar treats it as an Oriental fantasy, akin to Renaissance masques, which also featured allegory and stereotypical characters. Lovely imaginative costumes by Ellen Kozak conjure the Arabian Nights; the music is appropriately and danceably Eastern in rhythm (the play is set in ancient Bohemia and Cyprus, and brims with references to Greek myths); and a few well-choreographed dance interludes have a ritualistic, celebratory feel, as if telling the tale was a kind of ceremony to banish sorrow in hard times. The artists have labored to make the play as accessible as possible, avoiding solemnity in favor of sprightly, energetic performances. When the comedy shows up at the end of the first act, it’s less jarring than it might have been, despite arriving at the site of the abandoned infant princess: when the gangly, rubber-faced Brian Miracle narrates his twin stories of men shipwrecked and being devoured by a wild bear, it’s cartoon violence, no more serious than an episode of South Park (Miracle is that rarest of all things theatrical: a Shakespearean clown who’s actually funny).
After a charming interlude in which dancers with luminous wands enact the turning of the years, narrated by a delightful Linda Loving as Mother Time, we skip forward seventeen years to a peasant harvest festival, where the Princess, now grown into a lovely girl, is courted by none other than King Polixenes’ son. Polixenes gets his own chance to be tyrannical, throwing a hissy fit when he discovers his son betrothed to a commoner, and things look very bad indeed, until the accidental intervention of an itinerant scoundrel, played by Beth Mulkerron in a dual role, makes everything right. Mulkerron plays Hermione as the very model of a queen in speech and manner; as the trickster Autolycus, she’s amazingly springy: all knees and elbows, charming us into laughing at her bold-faced larceny. As the two kings, veteran actors Tom Reed and Mark Corkins make Shakespearean verse look easy; Emmitt Morgans manages to fashion his plot-moving character into a credible, sympathetic human being; and Allie Babich and Ethan Hall bring warmth and charm to their fairy-tale roles as the princess and prince. By playing flesh-and blood men and women, not fantasy cutouts, all the players build up an emotional reserve that really pays off.
Shockingly, it all ends remarkably well. A noblewoman—played with great authority by Mary Kababik—invites everyone over to see a statue of the dead queen that she’d just commissioned, and guess what happens? Despite the play’s artificiality, the moment of Hermione’s magical return, forgiveness, and reunion, with the rising moon peeking through the clouds, is every bit as moving as it should be—like the goddess Ishtar herself returning from the land of death. The sound of fireworks coming from nearby Polish Fest seemed quite in keeping, as everyone’s world is rocked.
A few tips on seeing A Winter’s Tale: Sit close; even in the last tier of chairs, despite amplification, random music and vagrant breezes left us straining to understand the softer-voiced players. Bring something warmer than a sweatshirt to wear; the night lake wind can be pretty darn chilly! And stay to the end; it’s worth the wait.
Lugging our chairs on the way to the hillside stage, we met a young lady walking her dogs. “What’s going on over there?” she wanted to know. Informed that it was free Shakespeare, she exclaimed: “I love this neighborhood!”
A Winter’s Tale
Free Shakespeare in the Park by Optimist Theatre
June 19 - 22, and 26 -29
at Kadish Park, 909 E. North Avenue in Riverwest
Attendance is free and no reservations or tickets are required.
For more information, visit optimisttheatre.org.