‘Winter’s Tale’ at Goodman: Clearing the high dramatic hurdle, crashing on rustic comedy
Review: “The Winter’s Tale” by William Shakespeare, at Goodman Theatre through June 9. ★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson
“Too hot,” mutters King Leontes, observing the intertwined fingers and nuzzled foreheads of his wife Hermione and his dearest friend Polixenes. “Too hot,” he repeats, his agitation swelling to anger, his anger to anguished suspicion. Thus, early and suddenly, Shakespeare’s mystical romance “The Winter’s Tale” careens down an unexpected path that leads headlong toward seeming ruin.
It is surely among the most challenging scenes to bring off in the Bard’s entire canon. But Leontes’ impetuous turn – instant condemnation of Hermione, whom he has just urged to prevail upon Polixenes to extend his visit – comes with rare plausibility and conviction from director Robert Falls and the impeccably gauged, paranoid Leontes of Dan Donohue. It’s an auspicious beginning for a Goodman Theatre production that oddly goes off the rails where the going seems easiest.
“The Winter’s Tale” is indeed a curiosity: bookends of fraught, magically edged drama that embrace compendiums of low comedy and revelation that will issue forth a happy ending. The first stretch can be pretty powerful stuff, as it is here, and the denouement done properly (as it is here) recaptures that emotional potency. The comically plump middle plays out amid rustics and low-lifes with an incursion of nobility that tips the story back to its sweet if improbable resolution.
Leontes’ explosive tirade against his pregnant wife (played with regal poise by Kate Fry) and his pal from childhood, the neighboring King Polixenes (the duly amazed Nathan Hosner), ends in general catastrophe when Leontes leaves the judgment of his wife to Apollo’s oracle, then rejects the verdict. The distraught Hermione gives birth to a girl only to have Leontes repudiate the child as a bastard – doubtless Polixenes’ issue! Leontes orders the infant to be dispatched from the palace and left on a distant shore to the whim of fate. But at the same time, his world comes crashing down on his head.
While these events move at dizzying speed, Donohue’s measured, articulate and incisively inflected speech acts as a kind of governor to keep the rate of tumble coherent and comprehensible. Here is an actor in full command of his character and of his rhetorical options. The King is certainly out of control, but just as assuredly not the actor. It’s exceptional, even among the successful accounts of Leontes I have seen. Likewise, Fry’s astonished and swiftly condemned Hermione elicits genuine compassion. Leontes’ long beloved wife is allowed no voice against her indictment.
The royal couple is surrounded by a fine ensemble of actors whose engagement in these mad happenings render the furious ramp-up credible, vivid and terrifying – notably Henry Godinez and Gregory Linington as Leontes’ faithful counsellors Camillo and Antigonus, and Christiana Clark as the latter’s morally upstanding and outspoken wife Paulina.
The play’s next chapter hurls us forward 16 years to the land (Polixenes’ kingdom, as it happens) where the infant was deposited along with a box of gold – and found by a simple shepherd (Tim Monsion) and Clown, his witless son (Will Allan). The girl, named Perdita (the lost one), has grown to beautiful young womanhood (Chloe Baldwin): a shepherdess but one who possesses the natural grace of royal breeding. Both the setting and the pastoral populace recall the Arden Forest in “As You Like It.”
Perdita has fallen in love with a young swain (Xavier Bleuel), who turns out to be Polixenes’ princely son. And into their midst ventures the cut-purse and con man Autolycus (Philip Earl Johnson). It’s a scene ripe for hilarity, but director Falls and his shepherds manage little more than busyness and noise. Autolycus, one of Shakespeare’s funniest characters, is lost on Johnson, whose portrayal wants both comic wit and a voice for singing. These are most lamentably dull rustics.
“The Winter’s Tale” ends with a marvel-framed lesson in redemption and forgiveness – and, in the present instance, a tribute to Kate Fry’s physical fitness as she holds a pose, statue-like and luminous as alabaster, without so much as flinching for a remarkably long time.
Finally, a word about the boy in the bearskin (Charlie Herman), Leontes’ ill-starred son. Early on, we find him sporting with his father dressed as a bear. The boy’s ursine revenant, solitary and mystic, brings the play full circle to imaginative completeness and touching closure.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreInChicago.com