The Winter’s Tale: Goodman Theatre

Lawrence Bommer in Chicago

Shakespeare’s strange late romance The Winter’s Tale begins with gratuitous jealousy and ends with gratuitous forgiveness. It’s best savoured as a fairy tale for grown-ups. A virtuous queen is condemned for adultery, her supposed despoiler is her husband’s equally honest best friend. lt seems as if we’ve blundered from courtly courtesies into an Othello-like tragedy. But that’s the frosty first act, where “a sad tale’s best for winter”.

Time heals all plots. Sixteen years later, all is forgiven in The Winter’s Tale. The abandoned offspring of formerly feuding friends fall in love, purging the sins of the fathers. Since no past pain can be admitted into this “happily-ever-after”, a contrived miracle restores a supposedly dead mother. But nothing can help the poor courtier who gets mangled by a bear in the theatre’s best-known stage direction.

Despite rapid reversals that plunge a whiplash plot into conniptions, this version casts a sturdy spell. The wrongs done by two hot-headed fathers are healed by time and children. Leontes, a gratuitously jealous king of Sicilia, is reunited with his unjustly accused and supposedly dead wife Hermione and his radiantly innocent, purportedly dead daughter Perdita. To seal the forgiveness, Perdita loves Prince Florizel of Bohemia, son of Leontes’s unjustly accused, life-long friend Polixenes.

“All’s well that ends well”— but this Shakespearean tale of evil envy and pointless pity is hardly much ado about nothing. A true tragicomedy, it’s, well, as you like it. However preposterous its massive make-believe, this fairy tale demands a dedicated telling. That’s not always the case with Robert Falls’s much-awaited revival. Marred by some schizoid storytelling, a domestic tragedy morphs into a forced farce, then sobers up into a much-desired family reunion. It’s all a bit manic-depressive.

 

The Winter’s Tale. Xavier Bleuel and Chloe Baldwin in foreground.
Photo credit: Liz Lauren.

 

The depression afflicts the dour doings in supposedly sunny Sicily, with its cold hanging lamps and all-concealing mirrors. The mania part gets supercharged into a blossom-laden Bohemia, resembling an agrarian Seventies commune, complete with a heavy-handed, Hee Haw-like sheep shearing and a funky hootenanny. The one constant in Walt Spangler’s set design is an inscrutable glass/mirror backdrop that conceals as much as it exposes.

Lacking the stylistic unity that would make matters more than warring tonal exercises, this efficient 140-minute revival relies more than usual on a reliable cast of first-rate actors (many Chicago favourites proven across the decades). Best here is Kate Fry, unforcedly noble amid her terribly traduced Hermione’s senseless suffering. Pitted against this priceless wife in pointless jealousy, then mired in unappeasable contrition, is Dan Donohue’s paranoid Leontes, his implacable self-destruction a fearful folly indeed. As the equally falsely accused Polixenes, Nathan Hosner’s Bohemian king is class incarnate. His patient perplexity under adversity contrasts with Christiana Clark as Hermione’s scathing champion Paulina. Portraying good courtiers yoked to an unhinged monarch, Henry Godinez and Gregory Linington achieve pathos even in paralysis.

The next generation brings fine work too. Bearing a remarkably convincing resemblance to her unknown mother Hermione, Chloe Baldwin’s affecting Perdita finds a rich match in Polixenes’s muscular son Prince Florizel (Xavier Bluel). Providing insistent comic relief, Philip Earl Johnson wears out his welcome as the rogue peddler Autolycus, then destroys it altogether playing a pompous courtier outwitting the bumpkins Tim Monsion and Josh Carpenter. Appearing at the show’s start and end is an anchoring image to which Falls gives much importance: Leontes’s doomed son Mamillius (Charlie Herman), forlornly costumed as the bear that will later dismember Antigonus. Perhaps the sad lad stands for one more wronged innocent in a tragicomedy with a bitter aftertaste. In any case this cautionary note tempers the unearned felicity of Shakespeare’s manipulated reconciliation. We get a happy ending fuelled by wishful thinking. Winter wins.

 

The Winter’s Tale. Christina Clark, Chloe Baldwin, Kate Fry. Photo credit: Liz Lauren.