Monday, July 18, 2011

Stylish, Emotional "Winter's Tale" Comes to Life at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

“The Winter’s Tale” falls into Shakespeare’s later period, when even the comedies were tinged with sadness. And, yes, “The Winter’s Tale” was classified as a comedy in the First Folio, although that seems a little odd today, when we might think this story of a tyrannical husband and king who almost loses everything quite tragic.

The king, one Leontes, has a beautiful wife, Hermione, and a young son, and everything seems right in his kingdom of Sicilia. But then his old best pal, Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, visits. Leontes sees Polixenes chatting and laughing with the very pregnant Hermione, and he is suddenly consumed by jealousy, so consumed that he ignores what everyone else tells him and convinces himself that the baby she is carrying belongs to Polixenes. Leontes tries to get one of his aides to poison Polixenes, but when that plot doesn’t come off and Polixenes escapes back to Bohemia, Leontes throws his very pregnant wife in jail and, when their baby is born, orders a courtier to take his tiny daughter far, far away and abandon her.

A nice shepherd finds the baby, now named Perdita (which means “lost"), the guy who left her gets eaten by a bear, and back in Sicilia, poor Hermione is dragged in front of the whole court and denounced as an unfaithful trollop. Even though the Oracle of Apollo takes her side, Leontes will not be moved. A courtier enters to announce that Hermione and Leontes’ young son, Mamillius, has died. At the news, Hermione collapses. Her friend, the stalwart Paulina, tells everyone that Hermione, too, has died from her grief and unhappiness. And finally, with his son and daughter and wife lost to him, finally Leontes sees how crazy he’s been. Finally, Leontes is sorry.

Quite the comedy, right?

Well, the second half is a bit cheerier. It’s 16 years later, little Perdita has grown into a lovely woman living with the kindly shepherd, Leontes has been sitting in Sicilia kicking himself around the block for his perfidy, and Polixenes has been back in Bohemia bringing up his son. The son falls in love with Perdita, Polixenes gets mad to think his royal child is mixed up with a lowborn shepherd’s daughter, threatening death and destruction, and everybody hoofs it back to Sicilia to sort things out.

In the play’s final reveal, Paulina brings Leontes a statue of his late wife, which she says is the very image of the lovely Hermione. Paulina pretends to cast a spell to bring the statue to life, and the family – Leontes, Hermione and Perdita – are together for the first time.

Fathers and daughters, irrational jealousy, miraculous reconciliations… Familiar Shakespearean ideas.

For the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, director Deb Alley has chosen to set the action during the period of Napoleon’s Empire. That means Leontes looks like he could be a Bonaparte, and his autocratic ways and steely dominion over his kingdom and his wife seem credible and real.

It also means that Rachel Laritz’s costume design includes lovely gowns for the ladies and dashing jackets and boots for the men that wouldn’t look out of place in a Jane Austen novel.

Among the cast, John Taylor Phillips does excellent work as Leontes, torturing himself with suspicion and then with distress over what he’s done. His Hermione, Melissa Graves, is quite fierce and strong, and the two of them together create a wonderfully moving, magical reconciliation scene.

Stephen Spencer gives us a charming, jolly Polixenes, someone you can see as the life of the party when he and Leontes were young. That helps explain why Leontes, perhaps less socially smooth than his old friend, would now look upon Polixenes acting a little flirty with his wife and see something sinister.

Alley has also given a significantly different interpretation to Sicilian lords Cleomenes and Dion, the two men Leontes sends to consult with Apollo’s Oracle on the question of Hermione’s fidelity and his own future. In this “Winter’s Tale,” they seem to be Scottish explorer ladies, out to find adventure in the unknown world. I’m clueless why they’re popping up in Sicilia in what seems to be 1810, but the actresses in the roles, Molly Rose Lewis and Jessie Dean, turn into spooky spiritualists when it comes time to divulge the prophecy, in a very compelling scene.

Thomas Anthony Quinn, as Leontes' estranged aide, Camillo, and Jan Rogge, as the faithful Paulina, add textured, warm performances and sympathetic characters to the mix. And little Shaun Taxali is quite adorable as young Mamillius.

I also enjoyed the three comic rustics in the piece, with David Kortemeier, Gerson Dacanay and Santiago Sosa bringing the shepherd, his son, and con man Autolycus to life more vividly than I recall from previous productions.

I would call this a stylish, emotional “Winter’s Tale,” clear on the idea that men like Leontes, who put power and control above everything else, will ultimately destroy what they care about most. Though Leontes is lucky enough to find his wife and daughter again, he has also lost his son and wasted 16 years.

Watching the Illinois Shakespeare Festival “Winter’s Tale” on a sultry summer evening, it’s still easy to feel the chill of Leontes’ terrible mistakes.

By William Shakespeare

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival at Ewing Manor

Director: Deb Alley
Costume Designer: Rachel Laritz
Scenic Designer: Michael Franklin-White
Lighting Designer: R. Lee Kennedy
Sound Designer: Aaron Paolucci
Stage Manager: Stephanie Wilson
Vocal Coach: Robert Ramirez
Dance Choreographer: Greg Merriman
Assistant Director: Brandon Ray

Cast: Gerson Dacanay, Jessie Dean, Michael Gamache, Melissa Graves, Nicholas Harazin, Nile Hawver, Josh Innerst, Mollie Rose Lewis, Kate McDermott, Dylan Paul, Melisa Peyera, John Taylor Phillips, Zach Powell, Thomas Anthony Quinn, Jan Rogge, Laura Rook, Santiago Sosa, Stephen Spencer, Andy Talen, Shaun Taxali.

Running time: 2:40, including one 15-minute intermission.

Performed in repertory through August 5.

For tickets and other information, visit the Illinois Shakespeare Festival website here.


  1. That's a REALLY good summary of the play and its effect, Julie.

    What with having seen Measure for Measure (admittedly a personal fave) onstage 3 times and Troilus twice, you'd think I could have bumped into a theater playing Winter's Tale at some point. But no.

    My only visual encounter was a British film that played on campus during my undergrad day, which I remember only as dimly lit and slow (filmed on a sort of unit set if I recall right, very like a budget stage production); the only recognizable names for me are Laurence Harvey (Leontes), Jane Asher (Perdita), and Jim Dale (Autolycus). The one from the BBC Complete series, which I never saw, is almost devoid of recognizable names -- just Robert Stephens (Polixenes), Jeremy Kemp (Leontes), Anna Calder-Marshall (Hermione), Margaret Tyzack (Paulina), and I wouldn't recognize any of them in a lineup.

    And then there's the animated version, with voices including Anton Lesser and Jenny Agutter, narrated by Roger Allam.

  2. The only one I have left is Timon of Athens. Well, and now that they're adding new ones, Two Noble Kinsmen.

    Chicago Shakes is doing Timon next season. Want to make a trip to Chicago to meet me to see it?

  3. I think I saw that unit set filmed version, if it was very white, JAC. Also, was in it twice, once at this same Illinois Shakespeare Festival!

    I found the statue scene and its sustained silences very moving in this production!

  4. Kathleen, do you remember how Time was handled in this one? I confess I do not.

  5. Kathleen, I'm not sure, it's so long ago. (I'd been looking forward to it, and then found it disappointing and unmemorable. Also, I was on a lousy date.) I think it was more wood-toned -- a mock-Elizabethan stage sort of thing, as that was understood in 1967.

    Might the white one have been the BBC TV production? Some of those used unit sets.

  6. I did see it on TV, PBS, so it might have been BBC. Er, LOL?