In my 35 years as Wednesday Journal’s theater reviewer, I’ve seen a number of Shakespeare’s plays multiple times. I think I’ve been to four productions of The Tempest and perhaps five of Hamlet and Macbeth. But until last weekend I had never seen The Winter’s Tale. It’s a late work by the Bard, part tragedy and part comedy, and not often performed.
Director Jason Narvy keeps his large, top-notch cast hustling in the Concordia Theatre Collective’s Winter’s Tale, presented at Madison Street Theatre. It’s an unusual production, lively and well-paced, combining deep pain with uproarious laughter.
Opening night was chock full of Concordia students who responded with enthusiastic applause, including a standing ovation during the curtain call. It’s a fun free-for-all of a play. Disturbing in its first half, the show’s mood changes to upliftingly silly and rockingly romantic.
If you’re a Shakespeare purist, be forewarned. Not only is it not set in the Elizabethan period, but it includes rock music performances and rather rowdy, lively dancing. It’s a fun approach. The time period is in the past but not clearly established. The women wear dresses and the men all seem to don glasses, bow ties and checked Argyle sweaters. Perhaps it’s no specific era at all but its own world. In the playbill there’s a note from director Narvy explaining his desire to not make the production a “museum piece.” Instead, this is a fascinating reimagining of a largely unfamiliar work.
The play opens abruptly. We’re thrown into a man’s paranoia, which quickly has tragic consequences. Out of nowhere, Leontes, King of Sicilia (Nate Perez), decides his devoted, pregnant wife Hermione (Katie Rub) is cheating on him with his boyhood friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia (David Ziebart). Is Leontes delusional and mentally unstable? Where is this dangerous suspicion coming from? As his rage and anxiety boil over, he makes rash decisions, including plotting to kill his friend and imprisoning his faithful wife. He won’t listen to reason, including his wife’s passionate defender, Paulina (Maddy Beezie).
Perez, as King Leontes, has a massive amount of dialogue but never fails to make it come alive. He stares into the audience, driving home the intensity of his passion.
This play includes what is perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” It’s no longer known if the Globe Theater gang rented an actual bear for this scene (from one of the bear pits in London) or whether a cast member in a bear suit performed. But this production includes a comic bear who chases away Antigonus (Juan Ortega) as he attempts to abandon Queen Hermione’s baby girl in the wild.
The baby is somehow raised to be a shepherdess named Perdita (Angela Matera). Sixteen years later, though King Leontes has never had to pay for his crime, this daughter shows up and falls for Florizel (Brandon Ellis), the true-born son of Polixenes.
The assistant director is Morgan Schussler-Williams, Scott Jones is the techincal director, and Christina Leinicke designed the costumes. The live music is a treat as is the wildly enthusiastic dancing. Thanks to lively choreography by Maggie Robinson, with assistance by Annelise Ayers, the company has a lot of fun with these scenes.
The two-level set, designed by Danuta Polan, is starkly minimalistic and defines separate areas for action to take place. At one point, during a musical interlude, the second level is hung with guitars that periodically are taken down and played.
Kara Grimm’s lighting design, in vivid blues and greens, also lights up specific acting areas for focus.
The play, with rage and tragedy in the first half and comedic redemption in the final scenes, concludes with optimistic denouement and is uplifting, establishing a mood of repentance and forgiveness that feels perfectly played.
There are three more performances this week at Madison Street Theatre, 1010 Madison St., Oak Park, on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 17 and 18, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 19, 3 p.m. $15; $10, student/seniors. Tickets: wintercuc.brownpapertickets.com.