Shakespeare Repertory

at the Ruth Page Theater

In an unprovoked fit of jealous rage, a king orders his beloved queen imprisoned and her newborn daughter burned alive. Hoping to save the child, a nobleman is eaten by a bear. The princess is rescued and raised by a wealthy shepherd and falls in love with a bona fide prince 16 years later at a sheep-shearing festival. Ultimately a statue of the dead queen comes to life. All this, and a text inordinately dense even by Shakespeare’s standards–welcome to The Winter’s Tale, every director’s nightmare.

The late romances–Cymbeline, Pericles, The Tempest, and The Winter’s Tale–are perhaps the most difficult and most intriguing works in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. While his early comedies seem designed to delight and instruct and his mid-career tragedies to probe the dark reaches of the soul, his romances seem intended to mystify. These fantastic plays, with their magical transformations embedded in wildly improbable plots, like fairy tales confound and beguile–which seems to suit Shakespeare just fine. As a nameless gentleman comments after learning that the lost princess has been reunited with her father after 16 years, “This news, which is call’d true, is so like an old tale, that the verity of it is in strong suspicion.”

Chicago companies tackling Shakespeare tend to disregard the playwright’s self-conscious artifice, apparently believing that overwrought vomitings of his crystalline poetry will somehow bring it to life. Actors growl and spit, pull at their hair, beat their breasts, and roll on the floor, all in the name of making the experience more “real.” But none of these histrionics can form an honest connection to Shakespeare’s text. His plays are everywhere concerned with the uses and effects of language, how the well-chosen phrase has the power to transform reality. All an actor really has to do–as Peter Sellars’s much maligned cast demonstrated in the Goodman’s recent Merchant of Venice–is speak the truth. The text will do the rest.

Unfortunately, Barbara Gaines’s cast in The Winter’s Tale spend the first act trying to do it all themselves. They portray Shakespeare’s heightened passions in a purely “realistic” way, with mortified looks and emphatic expletives. Leontes’ jealousy drives him to literally stagger about the stage, screaming out every other line in the first scene–an approach that not only leaves him nowhere to go emotionally but robs the role of authority. After all, a king doesn’t need to scream, and one who does becomes an ineffectual joke.

Of course, one could argue that Leontes is a bit of a joke, so consumed by jealousy that he imagines wild conspiracies and even calls the Delphic oracle “mere falsehood.” But everything surrounding Leontes in this production, from his somber and distressed court to the bursts of dramatic music that bring scenes to an end, tells us that we should take his plight very seriously indeed. Sam Tsoutsouvas portrays Leontes as if he were the tragic Othello, playing the character on a scale the text simply can’t support.

Lisa Dodson as Hermione, Leontes’ queen, suffers from the same problem. While the text establishes her as the picture of temperance and noble forbearance, this Hermione launches into an emphatic, nearly delirious plea for mercy when accused of high treason and adultery and finally slumps in a pile at her husband’s feet. Giving Hermione a bit of fire may make her more palatable to a modern audience, who perhaps see female passivity in Shakespeare as misogynist, yet her desperate tone is utterly at odds with her measured words: “For life, I prize it / As I weigh grief, which I would spare; for honor, / ‘Tis a derivative from me to mine, / And only that I stand for.” Shakespeare’s Hermione is unbelievably stoic, but she lives in an unbelievable world. She embodies a certain feminine archetype, and to make her believably human turns a fairy tale into a melodrama.

Laboring over the emotions of the first act, the cast in effect keep the play to themselves, leaving the audience little to do or feel. This approach also makes the end of the first act, in which Antigonus exits “pursued by a bear,” seem even more incongruous. The kind of production established during the first act does not allow for the appearance of a guy in a bear suit.

In the second act, however, the cast finally acknowledge the play’s artifice, and in so doing relate honestly to the audience for the first time. The traveling minstrel/pickpocket Autolycus stops in the middle of his first big number, nods toward several streamers of floral-print fabric suspended upstage, and says, “Welcome to the forest.” Instantly the burden of proof the actors shouldered during the first act is lifted, and the audience is invited to make-believe along with the actors rather than browbeaten into believing every strange moment is “real.”

Of course this dynamic is much easier to establish in the highly comedic second act than in the dark and dreary first. But in the second half of the play, when the characters suddenly turn brutal and King Polixenes threatens to kill the lowly shepherdess with whom his son is smitten, they do so effortlessly, without dredging up tortured emotions. Finally the scale of the passions suits the style of the play, and the second act just sings.

This new approach also allows the cast to exploit the formality of Gaines’s elegant staging. While in the first act the actors seem unable to remain still for more than a few seconds, continually filling the huge empty stage with fussy, unmotivated crossings, they’re comfortable enough in their second-act stage world to rely on their voices instead of their feet. The final scene, in which Hermione’s statue comes to life, is so still and pregnant–so perfectly contrary to the style and energy of the first act–that it fills the cavernous Ruth Page Theater with a magical warmth. This is a play centrally concerned with the idea of rebirth and renewal, and this deeply felt conclusion could not have been more perfectly staged. If Gaines could only inject some of this magic into the beginning of her production, she’d bring this supremely challenging play to life as few in Chicago could.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Ebright.