Whether you like your Shakespeare dark and menacing, light-hearted, or even jolly and magical, The Winter’s Tale offers something for all of the above.
As one of the Bard’s lesser-known plays, this tale is one of the least produced works in the Shakespearean canon. It’s one of his so-called “problem plays,” which does not comfortably fit into a single genre. Late in his life, in his mid-40s, as his career was winding down, Shakespeare tried to deviate from longstanding formulas in his later plays.
Oak Park Festival Theatre has opened its 47th season with a solid, thoroughly enjoyable and accessible production of Winter’s Tale in Austin Gardens. Kevin Theis is a strong director whose cast brings much energy and emotion to a gripping drama of jealousy and forgiveness. Theis also adapted the script. The play (c. 1611) is presented in modern dress.
During much of the production, most of the dialogue is projected (like the subtitles at the Lyric Opera) onto the upper portion of the huge, impressive set designed by Ryan Fox. It’s a great idea, though in the first part of the evening before the sun went down completely, these projections were somewhat difficult to read. That should be remedied as the run moves into August.
The themes in Winter’s Tale focus on paranoid leadership and patriarchal abuse. Once-beloved King Leontes of Sicily (Mark Lancaster) accuses his pregnant wife Hermione (Rebecca Swislow) of having an affair with his longtime best friend Polixenes (David Gordon-Johnson). The hysterical brute careens into tyrannical rule and seems to have lost his mind.
Leontes is scary in his passion and intensity. Initially his cruel jealousy may remind one of Othello but there is no Iago character to keep stoking the King’s anger. His paranoia is all his own.
As stoic, steely Queen Hermione, Swislow is first-rate. Her quiet poise matches Leontes’ strength as she reacts to her husband’s false accusations and professes her love for him.
A shepherdess (Claire Yearman) discovers Queen Hermione’s baby girl Perdita (Georgia Dib), takes her in and raises her as a peasant girl. Years later she is wooed by Florizel, Polixenes’ son (Brian Bradford).
Righteous but fierce Paulina, a lady-in-waiting who is unafraid to tell the king off, is played with strength by Barbara Zahora.
Camillo (North Rory Homewood), King Leontes’ trusted advisor, must make a fateful choice when confronted by the king’s madness. He and Paulina try to convince Leontes that he is not thinking clearly and should not go through with his punishments. Echoes of the Trump White House?
The second half of the play shifts mood: from dark tragedy to rustic comedy.
Belinda Bremner is the assistant director and properties designer.
The projected captions were created by August Forman.
The stage manager is Leigh Anne Barrett.
The Winter’s Tale is a fascinating drama that feels modern. We are fortunate to have such talented thespians in our community who bring us new takes on somewhat forgotten classics. It’s a tight production that rides like a roller coaster of emotion.
Austin Gardens is located at 157 Forest Avenue in Oak Park. The production runs through Aug. 20. Performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. Festival Theatre’s box office can be reached at 708-445-4440.