Oak Park’s The Winter’s Tale proves to be a perfect choice for this era

Photo by Josh Darr

In his director’s note for Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale at Oak Park Theatre Festival, Kevin Theis writes, “When the leader of your country believes in nonsense, rejects facts and evidence and simply acts in his own blinkered self-interest at all times (regardless of what science, his closest advisors, and the actual facts dictate), the country suffers. The people are disheartened. The entire society is imperiled.” The fact that everyone reading these words knows precisely which modern-day “leader” Theis is referring to here is evidence enough that this is a perfect time to stage a play about what happens when just such a disastrous person is left in charge of a nation’s welfare.

A production’s raison d’etre, though, is just one small aspect of its merit. Fortunately, Theis is also more than capable of delivering an excellent interpretation of this complicated and somewhat awkward play. The Winter’s Tale starts out as a devastating drama about a monarch who, Othello-like, has begun to believe that his very honest and loyal wife is having an affair, and ends up being a breezy, magical celebration of love. This in a play in which a leading character becomes dinner for a marauding bear, a plot element that actually kickstarts the comic side of things. As I said, it’s complicated.

Shakespeare never heard the modern word “tragicomedy,” but there is no doubt that many of his “problem plays” best fit into this category. Unlike a modern tragicomedy, though, The Winter’s Tale is not laced throughout with both elements. Instead, it overwhelms us with the darkness and horror before tossing them aside entirely in favor of laughter and light. What’s a director to do? In this case, Theis makes a few decisions that work brilliantly.

His first is to make sure that his audience can see that neither Sicilian King Leontes (Mark Lancaster, imposing and dominant) nor his doomed Queen Hermione (Rebecca Swislow) is in any way a nuanced character at the start. Leontes is arrogant, self-righteous, and capable of grievous injustice due to his own insecurity and jealousy. Hermione is a paragon of Good, a flawless, well-loved queen whose fall seems less tragic than utterly insane and ridiculous. Both Lancaster and Swislow play these less than three-dimensional characters perfectly, setting up the one as a tyrant and the other as a martyr. Leontes is so severely deluded that he even orders his infant daughter, Perdita, to be killed as well as Hermione. All of this would be fine if Shakespeare had intended to follow through with the darkness. Radically shifting gears in the middle of the play, though, leaves an audience with whiplash: how did we find suddenly ourselves in a sweet, funny love story anyway?

Theis does what any good director must in such a situation: he finds any elements of comedy he can within the dark first half and exaggerates them, and then he finds the darkness within the comic second half and exaggerates that. Leontes’ loyal subject Camillo (North Rory Homewood), tasked with fulfilling another of his king’s lunatic directives—this time to murder his houseguest King Polixenes of Bohemia (David Gordon-Johnson), a man Leontes refers to as “brother” but who has unwittingly found himself paired with Hermione in Leontes’ rabid fantasies—just can’t carry it out. Homewood gamely tries to bring some physical comedy into the proceedings as his king questions his loyalty while verbally and physically abusing him, but his outraged and terrified facial expressions serve only to underscore (for both us and him) that the king is out of his royal mind. Thus Camillo spirits Polixenes out of the country instead of killing him. (Full disclosure: Homewood is my son.)

The entire second half of the play, set in Bohemia, grows from this betrayal. We quickly learn that sixteen years have passed and Perdita (Georgia Dib)—who was not killed but, Oedipus-like, instead was found and adopted by a passing Shepherdess (Claire Yearman, enjoying herself so much it should be illegal)—has grown to be the most beautiful young woman in the country. She has even attracted the attention of the King’s son, Florizel (Brian Bradford), who has wooed her even though his father would not approve. (None of them knows of her royal lineage.) Cast perfectly, Dib and Bradford easily personify this Cinderella couple. They are not quite the underdeveloped archetypes that Perdita’s parents were, though: these youngsters, good though they are, can and do defy their parents’ expectations and orders, actions that send them running…guess where.

This part of the play is rife with comedy, music, and dancing, and Theis exploits it fully. Camillo returns (with Polixenes in intentionally ridiculous disguises) to crash a feast at the home of the Shepherdess and suss out for themselves just what Florizel is up to. Homewood has a field day here, as his character can never remember what fake accent he used and thus adopts a whole slew of absurdly exaggerated dialects. Dylan Baxter, as the Shepherdess’s son, is also hilarious, a brilliant Clown, especially in one scene that allows him to use physical comedy. Brian Rooney (after his previous character met that unfortunate ursine end with one of the best bears ever…thanks to scenic designer Ryan Fox) returns in a different role as a traveling salesman/con artist, and if you’re counting that makes three comic characters in this act as Shakespeare attempts to make up for and undo the depravity of the first one. (Only a brief and gratuitous plot line in which Polixenes does his best Leontes impression, threatening the young people, even pretends to imperil the joy in this one, though…and that threat is eliminated so casually it seems as fleeting as one of the Austin Park fireflies darting among the crowd.)

Ultimately, this play finds forgiveness for pretty much everyone, though Barbara Zahora’s protofeminist Paulina makes sure Leontes knows that no one will ever forget what he has done. (Zahora is so good here that she practically takes over the play in parts.) Maybe that is the point: forgive but don’t forget. Theis’s not-exactly-oblique director’s note comparison to our modern politics begs us to consider whether we can ever forgive our own Leontes. We sure as heck can’t forget him (and he won’t let us anyway). As in this play, though, perhaps we can find a way to put it behind us and move into the future.

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