Dathan Hooper and Jeremy Sapp in The Winter’s Tale.
Photo by Holly Stone.
The Winter’s Tale
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Amy Attaway
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2016 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Is The Winter’s Tale a comedy or a romance? This has been considered a vital question among scholars, but the play actually straddles comedy and tragedy in a somewhat precarious fashion that makes it a challenge for the director and the audience.
The director here is Amy Attaway, whose reputation is built on handling the work of current American playwrights like Lucas Hnath and Marco Ramirez, and she brings a modern sensibility and slight, melodramatic edge to the serious first half that enables it to more effectively connect to the audience.
Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Gregory Maupin), is visiting his old friend, Leontes, the King of Sicilia (Dathan Hooper). But Polixenes fears he has been too long away from his home and announces he will be returning to his own kingdom to see his son. When only Leontes’ wife, Queen Hermoine (Maggie Lou Rader), can convince Polixenes to stay longer, Leontes suddenly suspects that his pregnant wife has been having an affair with Polixenes and that the child is not really his. Consumed by jealousy, Leontes orders Camillo, a Sicilian Lord, to poison Polixenes. Camillo instead warns Polixenes and they both flee to Bohemia.
The severity of Leontes’ reaction to these events is frightening, and he refuses any reasonable council, even from the gods. These scenes belie the claim of comedy or romance for the play, instead examining the consuming, destructive power of dark, irrational emotions. For awhile it feels more like Hamlet or Othello, but then, just before intermission, there is a shift in tone and texture into pastoral comedy that might put the viewer in mind of a play started by Edward Albee and then taken over by Neil Simon.
The demarcation point is clear, and Attaway embraces it with a clownish bit of bear claw business and a trust in the inestimable comic abilities of her cast. For a considerable time after intermission, the action has moved to Bohemia, which is altogether a more appealing place than Sicily, at least in the context of Shakespeare’s play: friendly and bucolic. When we return to Leontes’ court for the final scenes, The Bard ends The Winter’s Tale on an implausible but irresistible grace note of forgiveness, redemption, and second chances that feels possible only because of the broad comedy and lighter sensibility that has preceded it.
Dathan Hooper gives Leontes a senseless rage of great force. Leontes’ motivation seems thin textually, but Hooper’s bold anger suggests deep-seated, unfathomable demons that allow some understanding. Maggie Lou Rader invests Hermione with a deep reservoir of dignity that makes us share in the pain of her abuse and false accusation. As Paulina, Hermione’s most fearless defender, Abigail Bailey Maupin is a lesson for even the best lawyers in arguing a righteous cause. Gregory Maupin makes for a regal Polixenes, with just the right touch of hedonism, and Jeremy Sapp has integrity as Camillo.
Jon Huffman and Zachary Burrell kick off the comedy portion with a complimentary energy: Huffman’s sly dog wit and Burrell’s good-natured buffoonery playing off of each other to good effect. And then Neill Robertson arrives as Autolycus, singing and falling about the stage with such a heady blend of verbal and physical dexterity that one cannot help but be astonished. The character is an invitation to steal the show, and that would certainly be the case if such a confident and skilled ensemble did not surround Robertson. Tony Milder and Arielle Leverett fill in the romantic subplot of Florizel and Perdita with adequate charm, while Kyle Ware and Crystian Wiltshire stand out as members of Leontes’ court. The rest are Megan Massie, Julian Allen, Byron Coolie, Marci Duncan, Jon Patrick O’ Brien, and Braden McCampbell and they all acquit themselves admirably.
Design work is as strong as we expect from Kentucky Shakespeare, with Donna Lawrence-Downs providing rich, patterned raiment for the highborn figures and humbler garments for the more common folks, and Laura Ellis giving her sound design a balance of verisimilitude and fantasy where appropriate. The sound of baby Perdita crying made audience members look around for upset infants in the crowd.
Although there is a seasonal reference in the dialogue, the play has little to do with winter, except as a metaphor for the heart of darkness in Leontes that is the catalyst for such profound tragedy. The strength of this production lies in how clear and forcefully it tells a difficult and narratively challenging story, making The Winter’s Tale as accessible an entertainment as any of Shakespeare’s more popular and often produced plays.
The Winter’s Tale
June 16-19, 21-26, July 14, 17, 19, 22, 23, 2016
8:00PM Nightly Free Show; 7:15 pre-show
Kentucky Shakespeare Festival
In Central Park
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.