Goodman Theatre

There’s a clicking sound in the darkness just before the Goodman Theatre production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale begins–a sound like some kind of mechanism being wound up. In a moment the lights go on and we can see Mamillius, the young prince of Sicilia, turning a key in a little clockwork bear; we realize that this motion is meant to be taken as the immediate source of the sound. But what we heard was more than the toy bear: it was the play itself being wound up.

The Winter’s Tale is a mechanism. A grand contrivance. An elaborate gear-driven fable, as artful and solemn as a carousel. The people and events it portrays must be understood as works of craft, the play itself as a triumph of craft, or they can’t be understood at all.

Not that there’s much pressure to understand them any other way. From his title, advertising the work as a “tale”–something with no grounding in fact–to his invention of a wild Bohemian seacoast on which to set certain key events, Shakespeare made his own attitude clear enough. And even if he hadn’t, the material would have done it for him.

The Winter’s Tale is, after all, none too naturalistic–a series of implausibilities building toward one marvelous impossibility. Get this: Having imagined a liaison between his pregnant wife, Hermione, and Polixenes, king of Bohemia, Sicilia’s king Leontes works himself up into a jealous frenzy that not only alienates him from Polixenes and various other true-blue friends, but incites him to jail Hermione, banish her prison-born baby, and–worst of all–defy the Apollonian oracle’s unequivocal declaration that he’s got it all wrong. Pissed off, the gods kill young Mamillius–he of the clockwork bear. Hermione is reported dead of grief. And Leontes’ honest minister, Antigonus, gets eaten by a flesh-and-blood bear while leaving the newborn alone to live or die, as per Leontes’ instructions, on the famous coast of Bohemia. Leontes himself is suddenly sorry as hell.

Years pass. Discovered and raised by an old Bohemian farmer, Hermione’s baby has grown into a lovely teenager. Called Perdita, she doesn’t know the secret of her birth; still, her natural nobility is such that she’s attracted the ardent attentions of Florizel, Polixenes’ son. I don’t want to go into all the details here. Suffice it to say that by means of this happenstance and that accident, this coincidence and that contrivance, Perdita and Florizel wend their way back to Leontes’ court; Perdita finds out who she is, Leontes is reconciled with Polixenes, and the gods are mollified, while Hermione is vindicated in a coup de theatre so tender and fantastical that it might quite literally make a statue weep.

Like I say: a mechanism. The story’s full of springs and gears, giving it a distinctly absurd look at times. But also conferring a mythic symmetry. Shakespeare understood both the absurdity and the symmetry, and let both manifest themselves in his telling. Which is why this apparently silly story can nevertheless play profoundly as a parable about suffering and patience, love and repentance.

Frank Galati evidently understands, too. Under his direction, this Goodman production is wonderfully ridiculous and deep.

And extraordinarily beautiful, as well. Galati’s genius as a director seems to be his ability to present an audience with images that aren’t just gorgeous but indispensable to the narrative–that are, in effect, elements of the narrative itself. The great example of this ability, of course, was his 1987 masterpiece, She Always Said, Pablo. This Winter’s Tale amounts to an aesthetic sequel to that show.

In a hundred different ways–his use of the bear image, for instance; his staging of a masque at the beginning of the play; his exploitation of John Conklin’s brilliant set so that certain exchanges are experienced by the audience as if we’d overheard them–Galati produces more than the script. He produces the stage itself.

There are important problems here. Virgil Johnson’s otherwise impeccable costuming goes real wrong late in the play when he dresses the mourning Leontes in a sort of black Nehru suit that absolutely fails to communicate the sincerity of the king’s atonement–suggesting exactly the opposite, in fact. And though Martha Lavey is almost iconic in her gravity as Hermione, she never manages to generate the grandeur that must come of the character’s sorrow, anger, and endurance.

But the overall effect is as right as it is stunning. With the help of a cast that constitutes a gathering of some of the best talent in Chicago–including, most remarkably, an intense Steve Pickering as the tormented Antigonus and an affable Skipp Sudduth as Autolycus the con man–Galati makes a mechanism that ticks nicely but with a distinct resonance. As artful and solemn as a carousel.