The script of “The Winter’s Tale” — which has long been classified by scholars as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”– certainly has its strengths. It simultaneously possesses astute examinations of human character and unbelievable plot twists, all bolstered by sweeping emotional gestures.
But the tone also changes pretty abruptly at the halfway point of the play, from tragedy to comedy. It’s drastic enough that one would almost wonder if she had wandered back to the wrong amphitheater post-intermission.
Kentucky Shakespeare director Amy Attaway embraces the shift in tone in the company’s production of “The Winter’s Tale,” which opened June 17. The result is a production that is not just cohesive but truly magical.
(Disclosure: Attaway is a part-time on-air host at WFPL.)
“The Winter’s Tale” begins as Leontes, King of Sicilia (Dathan Hooper) is trying to convince his best friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Gregory Maupin) to extend his visit to the Sicilian court. Polixenes, who has already been away from his kingdom for nine months, refuses. Leontes asks his pregnant wife Hermione (Maggie Lou Rader) to try to persuade his friend otherwise — which she does easily.
Initially, Leontes is pleased. But he soon becomes irrationally jealous, convinced that Polixenes and Hermione are having an affair and that the child she is carrying is not his. He tries to convince his trusted courtier Camillo (Jeremy Sapp) to poison Polixenes. Convinced of the queen’s innocence, Camillo and Polixenes make a break for Bohemia.
Leontes’ behavior escalates, leading to the deaths of his wife and son, Mamillius (Julian Allen) — and to the abandonment of his newborn daughter, Perdita, off the shore of Bohemia.
Shortly after, the oracle of Delphi sends a message to the king that declares that Hermione, Polixenes and the baby are all innocent. It says Leontes is “a jealous tyrant” and asserts that “the king shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found.” Leontes vows to spend the rest of his days atoning for his misdeeds.
It’s at this low point in the play that the audience is teased with the laughs that are to come. An Old Shepherd (Jon Huffman) and his son, Clown (Zachary Burrell), find the infant Perdita on the coast. In her basket is a pouch of gold and items that hint at her royal connections. They decide to raise her as their own, which sets the stage for a fateful family reunion 16 years later, when the second act picks back up.
There are strong performances from characters on both sides of the emotional spectrum in “The Winter’s Tale,” which is what makes the play — underneath all the magic and circumstance — directly relatable.
Abigail Bailey Maupin as Paulina, the no-nonsense friend of Hermione, elevates a role that could play as an angry scold into a character whose defiance (which was viewed as wholly unusual — and inappropriate — for a woman of that time) is a clue to her deeply held convictions and sense of empathy. The added element of her witchcraft is a total bonus.
Huffman and Burrell have great onstage chemistry. Together they are well-meaning, slightly oafish and lovable. Burrell’s experimentation with more physical comedy (box-jumping onto the stage, full sprints post-scene) is a joy.
But the rogue Autolycus, played by Neill Robertson, is perhaps the most memorable character in the production. He sings, he dances, he fakes injury — and in every movement, he is delightfully over-the-top.
As usual, the costuming by Donna Lawrence-Downs is superb, as is the choreography by Barb Cullen.
This is the second script Kentucky Shakespeare has performed this season with which scholars have issue; “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” which was the first and returns July 13, is regarded as one of the Bard’s weakest works.
But with the canny direction now indicative of the company and its nimble cast, it seems that “The Winter’s Tale” is a problem play no more.
The play returns to Central Park July 14.
(Disclosure: WFPL News Producer Laura Ellis is also sound designer for Kentucky Shakespeare.)