Riverside Theatre performs Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’

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King Leontes, played by Martin Andrews, acts out a scene from the play “The Winters Tale” on Saturday, July 17, 2021. The Shakespeare play was put on by Riverside Theatre.

Sunday evening in City Park was a merry and warm one, as groups of Iowa City denizens gathered at Riverside Theatre’s festival stage and its surrounding lawn to catch Riverside’s final performance of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.”

The free event attracted large crowds every night of its two-weekend production, and Sunday night was no different. Pre-show activities drew in children and families to the picnic across from the theater, and lines for ice cream bars stretched long as people waited in anticipation.

As folks settled into their spots before the show’s start, there was a resounding feeling of gratitude in the air. Old friends shook hands and bonded over finally getting back to in-person theater.

When Riverside’s artistic director and actor Adam Knight took the stage and spoke of this long-awaited return to in-person theater, a thunderous applause followed, and then began the two-and-a-half-hour production of “The Winter’s Tale.”

Off the bat, the show introduces the play’s protagonist, Leontes, king of Sicilia, whose best friend, Polixenes, king of Bohemia, has come to Sicilia for a nine-month visit. Once Leontes begins to suspect Polixenes and his wife, Hermione, have formed a secret relationship, he is overtaken by jealousy. The rest of the play follows in the aftermath of his irrational actions.

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Leontes’ erratic and childish nature was captured perfectly by actor Martin Andrews, who used each soliloquy to draw the audience into his wild fits of rage and absurd plan to imprison his pregnant wife and kill Polixenes. Hermione, also known as actress Jessica Link, held true to her strength and dignity as her husband’s accusations caused suffering to her and her unborn child.

There to call out the king on all of his unfounded actions was the audacious Paulina, played by actress Crystal Stewart, who offered consistent realness and a surprisingly feminist twist to the 16th century play. Stewart added a level of depth and empathy to her character that made her one of the most likeable in the play.

Without giving too much away, the first half of the play ends quite sadly in the shadow of Leontes’ fury in the midst of a massive thunderstorm. As if on cue, the sun dimmed in City Park and the wind picked up. When audience members returned from intermission for the second part of the play, the set had been transformed into the festive and liberal Bohemia.

Quite different from the frigid set of Sicilia, the Bohemia set was appropriately adorned by green vines, fairy lights, flowers, and fake sheep. The characters in Bohemia dressed in colorful, loose-fitting clothing, and held a more jovial disposition than in that of Sicilia.

Whatever tragedy Leontes inflicts on the other characters in the first half of the play, Autolycus, played by actor Patrick Dulaney, is there to balance out with comedy by the second half. Dulaney was a definite crowd favorite, whose silly antics and willingness to let it all hang out (for those who saw the show — you know what I mean) had the crowd rife with belly laughs and knee slaps.

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Overall, the play was happy, sad, funny, surprising, and most shockingly, had a happy ending.

As with all his plays, there is something contagious about the nature of Shakespeare, and this affection is only amplified by the setting of Riverside’s amphitheater and its high-spirited actors and actresses.

For those looking to enjoy a night of fresh air, good company, and grown men overusing the word “bosom,” look no further than a weekend of Shakespeare at the park. In just two weeks, Riverside Theatre will suit up for its next round of free Shakespeare, this time with the farcical, “The Comedy of Errors.”

More information about the next show can be found on the company’s website.

Review: Riverside Theatre’s ‘Winter’s Tale’ brings tragedy, comedy to Iowa City park

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IOWA CITY — Riverside Theatre’s telling of Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’ is a midsummer night’s dream.

Perdita (Christina Sullivan) and Prince Florizel (Barrington Vaxter) dance with glee at the Bohemian sheepshearing festival while the Shepherd who raised her (Elliott Bales, center) smiles with his approval in “The Winter’s Tale.” Riverside Theatre’s free Shakespeare in the Park production continues July 22 to 25, 2021, on the Festival Stage in Iowa City’s Lower City Park. (Rob Merritt)

Apollo shined down on the first weekend of free performances that drew 1,100 people to the outdoor Festival Stage in Iowa City’s Lower City Park. Let’s hope Apollo also shines his sun and light on the final four performances, Thursday through Sunday, July 22 to 25.

‘The Winter’s Tale’ Where: Riverside Theatre’s Festival Stage, Lower City Park, 200 Park Rd., Iowa City When: 7:30 p.m. July 22 to 25, 2021 Admission: Free, no ticket needed Extras: Seating is first-come, masks not required, socially distanced section available; lawn activities and food trucks at 6:30 p.m., Green Show introduction to the play at 7 p.m. Details: riversidetheatre.org/the-winters-tale

The venue, modeled after Shakespeare’s Old Globe Theatre in London, is beautiful for an evening performance. S. Benjamin Farrar’s scenery is fun to watch transform, and Karle Meyers’ costumes are glorious in their flowing splendor.

And Adam Knight’s direction is impeccable, as he allows his stellar cast to explore the inner demons or outward hilarity of their characters.

This show personifies Riverside’s belief that “Shakespeare is for everyone,” with the drama sweeping from the show’s first half into the sidesplitting physical humor of the show’s second half, which had a little boy sitting near me Friday night howling with laughter. (So was I.)

If you aren’t a Shakespearean scholar — and even if you are — be sure to attend the 7 p.m. Green Show preview by the shelter house near the theater. Before each performance, cast members Elijah Jones and Luli Gomez Teruel will explain not only the show’s concept, but how it defies the three main Shakespearean play categories of comedy, tragedy and history.

This one boasts all three.

Watching jealousy consume Sicilian King Leontes is utterly captivating, as actor Martin Andrews thunders his accusations of infidelity at his pregnant queen (the luminous Jessica Link) and his lifelong best friend, Bohemian King Polixenes (Aaron Weiner), who has been visiting for nine months.

Leontes wrestles as much with himself as with his beloveds, handing down tragic consequences for them all as he descends into madness.

The women, however, have the most ardent speeches, first as Queen Hermione (Link) defends her honor and love for Leontes, and then as noblewoman Paulina (Crystal Marie Stewart), tries to thaw the king’s icy heart by presenting to him his newborn daughter. Unfazed, he banishes the child to the woods, where she is found and raised by a shepherd.

The mood changes completely after intermission as the action moves to Bohemia. Gone are the stark, angular set pieces of the Sicilian realm, replaced by flowers, bright colors and flowing garments reflecting a much freer folk.

Sixteen years have passed, and the Sicilian princess Perdita (Christina Sullivan), not knowing of her noble birth, has fallen in love with Polixenes’ son, Prince Florizel (Barrington Vaxter).

The frolicking residents are preparing for a sheepshearing festival, and that’s when actor Patrick Du Laney takes over the realm, as a thieving traveling musician Autolycus. I won’t give away the full scope of his antics, but slipping into an ill-fitting shirt, he slips into high humor.

All the cast members have their own moments in the sun, often playing more than one character, and sliding seamlessly between them.

Jones plays the perfect foil to Du Laney, and Elliott Bales, with his commanding presence, brings compassion to his dual roles as Leontes’ aide who must abandon the baby in the woods, then later, as the kindly shepherd who raises her.

The only challenge to the evening is hearing some of the actors when they lower their voices too much, letting their utterances disappear into the night air.

I also won’t give away the ending, as the action moves back to Sicilia (Sicily). Suffice it to say, all’s well that ends well, but you really need to see it for yourself.

With a generous intermission, the show clocks in at three hours that go zipping by. Activities begin an hour before the 7:30 p.m. curtain, and those who arrive early can bring a picnic or buy dinner, drinks and snacks from a food truck and the theater’s concession stand.

Yard games beckon all ages to play in the lawn.

Since the seating is general admission — with a section marked off for social distancing — be sure to bring a blanket or jacket to stake your claim before heading out to royally enjoy the preshow festivities.

Another round of free Shakespeare in the Park comes Aug. 13 to 22 with the madcap antics of “The Comedy of Errors.” Missing either of these shows would be a mistake.

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

Riverside Theatre returns with free Shakespeare in Iowa City park

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Perdita (Christina Sullivan) romps through a scene with Leontes (Martin Andrews), king of Sicily, in Shakespeare’s “The Winter Tale.” Riverside Theatre is presenting this combination of tragedy and comedy from July 15 to 25, 2021, on the Festival Stage in Iowa City’s Lower City Park. Admission is free. (Rob Merritt)

Don’t let the title fool you. Director Adam Knight said this summer is the perfect time to see “The Winter’s Tale” on Riverside Theatre’s outdoor stage in Iowa City.

Perhaps even better than last summer, when Shakespeare’s tale of jealousy, rebirth and redemption was scheduled for the Festival Stage in Lower City Park — until the pandemic put it on pause. This year, it will be performed evenings from July 15 to 25, with free admission.

It’s the tale of two kingdoms and the fracture in their friendship stemming from King Leontes (Martin Andrews), ruler of Sicily, accusing his wife, Queen Hermione (Jessica Link), of having an affair with his best friend since childhood, Polixenes, the king of Bohemia (Aaron Weiner).

If you go What: “The Winter’s Tale” Where: Riverside Theatre’s Festival Stage, Lower City Park, 200 Park Rd., Iowa City When: 7:30 p.m. July 15 to 18 and 22 to 25 Admission: Free, no ticket needed Extras: Seating is first-come, masks not required, socially distanced section available; lawn activities and food trucks at 6:30 p.m., Green Show introduction to the play at 7 p.m. Details: riversidetheatre.org/the-winters-tale

Polixenes escapes back to Bohemia, but Leontes sends his pregnant wife to jail for infidelity, believing her unborn child was fathered by Polixenes. In his anger, the Sicilian king becomes increasingly tyrannical.

King Leontes (Martin Andrews) shares a tender moment with his queen, Hermione (Jessica Link), in “The Winter’s Tale,” the first of two free Shakespearean plays Riverside Theatre is presenting this summer in Iowa City’s Lower City Park. This one runs July 15 to 25, followed by “The Comedy of Errors” from Aug. 13 to 22. (Rob Merritt)

“But then Shakespeare does this thing where he doesn’t allow this tragedy to continue. He flips it on its head and makes it a comedy,” Knight said, noting that in the second half, the next generation seeks to bridge the divide between kingdoms and families.

Finding relevance

“A year ago, the play meant different things than it does now. So in some ways, this isn’t just about doing what we had planned to do,” said Knight, who also serves as Riverside Theatre’s producing artistic director.

“Taking this text that a year ago seemed to be a play about how a society deals with a tyrant — and now this play, for me, is about rebirth. It’s about what happens after a challenging episode, and how society and a family can heal from them. That, to me, speaks to this moment very much.”

Knight has had another year to think about the way he would approach this work, but he’s actually been living with the script for more than a decade, since serving as associate director for a 2009 production in Washington, D.C.

Hermione (Jessica Link), queen of Sicily, finds moment to relax with Polixenes (Aaron Weiner), king of Bohemia, while Camillo (Tim Budd) watches from the background in Riverside Theatre’s production of “The Winter’s Tale,” running from July 15 to 25 on the Festival Stage in Iowa City’s Lower City Park. (Rob Merritt)

“Ever since that production, the play has been with me and kind of gestating. The play changes for me.

“The most important thing theater can do for me is be present,” he said. “Whenever I work on a play, I try to look at it as if I’ve never seen it before, and really think, what does it mean now in this moment? What does it mean to me, what does it mean to our community (and) what I think it means in a larger context.”

Despite the gap between the 17th and 21st centuries, making the show relatable to modern audiences is part of the challenge and charm for today’s theater troupes.

“What’s so great about Shakespeare is that we come to it and fill it with who we are now,” Knight said. “We’re not doing the play as Shakespeare would have done it in 1609. That’s not what theater wants anyway. Part of the truth of Shakespeare is meeting it half way and finding something very present in something very distant.”

Behind the title

According to the Royal Shakespeare Company, the play is believed to have been written around 1609 to 1611, with the first recorded performance being May 15, 1611, at London’s Globe Theatre — the venue that inspired Riverside’s Festival Stage design.

In Shakespeare’s day, audiences would have known what the title meant.

“It was a term that referred to a ghost story or a monster story — a goblin tale,” Knight said. “I think that Shakespeare’s audiences would have come in expecting something to surprise them.”

“The Winter’s Tale” doesn’t have literal monsters, he added.

“The goblin in this play is in Leontes’ mind — it’s his jealousy,” Knight said. “Very early in the play, he becomes intensely jealous of his childhood best friend and his wife, and that jealousy drives the first half of the play, and leads the play down a tragic path.”

The changes in tone bring the seasons into play for today’s viewers, alluding to the life cycle of earth, Knight said, with winter being the nadir, or low point in the first half, and spring and summer bringing rebirth in the second half.

“The rebirth for Shakespeare is in the next generation. The play transports us 16 years into the future, and this new generation is able to move on from the mistakes of the previous generation, and is able to heal and to find forgiveness,” Knight said.

From Aug. 13 to 22, Riverside returns to the Festival Stage with Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors,” directed by Angie Toomsen, Theatre Cedar Rapids’ artistic director, and a recent collaborator with the Iowa City troupe.

From the titles, the tone of the two shows seems very different, but Knight said they’re united in an unusual way.

“Both plays are about characters discovering who they are,” he said. “Both plays are also two of Shakespeare’s only surprise endings. What’s the old adage? ‘Comedy is tragedy plus time.’ Both plays take a situation that on its face could be very tragic, and finds the joy and the comedy in it — which feels pretty relevant right now.”

Outdoor experience

To celebrate Riverside’s 40th anniversary, as well as giving audiences more theatrical experiences and further using the Festival Stage’s scenic setting, the professional troupe is returning to the days when it presented two Shakespearean plays outdoors.

The setting sun provides a watercolor backdrop for a recent rehearsal of “The Winter’s Tale,” being produced by Riverside Theatre from June 15 to 25, 2021, on the Festival Stage in Iowa City’s Lower City Park. (Keegan Christopher)

But instead of running them in rotation beginning in June, Knight decided to head for the drier months, staging one in July and the other in August, with each show having its own, separate scenery.

The free seating is general admission, with no ticket required, so audience members are encouraged to come early, stake out a seat, then enjoy the preshow activities beginning at 6:30 p.m., featuring games on the lawn and food trucks selling refreshments.

The Green Show, directed by Christopher Okiishi, will begin at 7 p.m. in the adjacent picnic area. The added experience offers all ages a comedic glimpse into the play, as well as a glimpse into Shakespeare’s realm.

“Making it free fulfills our mission,” Knight said. “The mission of the Riverside Shakespeare Festival is that Shakespeare is for everyone. I love watching families come, I love that we have a space where people can bring their kids. …

“For some audience members, this is their first introduction to Shakespeare, their first introduction to live theater, and what a gift to be able to do that.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com