Problematic Shakespeare production blends tragedy, comedy, French and English

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This production of The Winter’s Tale, often deemed one of William Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” allows for the virtual pleasure of a visit to the Trappist Monastery Provincial Heritage Park to enjoy the work of 10 different Winnipeg actors.

This production of The Winter’s Tale, often deemed one of William Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” allows for the virtual pleasure of a visit to the Trappist Monastery Provincial Heritage Park to enjoy the work of 10 different Winnipeg actors.

Even so, the filmed production, true to its categorization, is… problematic.

A reason for its status is, in most basic terms, the play begins as a tragedy and ends as a comedy. The tragedy comes courtesy of King Leontes of Sicily (Gabriel Daniels), who asks his faithful wife Hermione (Ava Darrach-Gagnon) to help convince his good friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Simon Miron), to stay on an extended visit. Hermione succeeds, but that only spurs Leontes to suspect the pregnant Hermione has been unfaithful to him with Polixenes.

Bird in a gilded cage: Gabriel Daniels (left) is King Leontes, putting his wife Hermione (Ava Darrach-Gagnon) on trial in The Winter’s Tale. (Shakespeare in the Ruins /Théâtre Cercle Molière)

Leontes goes off the deep end in a big way, ordering the murder of Polixenes, the arrest of his wife and the abandonment in the wild of the infant she bears. Polixenes escapes to his home country with his would-be murderer Camilla (Jane Testar). But in the ensuing kerfuffle, Leontes’ only son, Mamillius (Kristian Cahatol), dies of sheer stress. In due course, Hermione’s faithful maid Paulina (Andrea del Campo) breaks the news that Hermione has also died, of grief, in the wake of an Oracle’s declaration that Hermione was innocent.

Meanwhile, Paulina’s husband, Lord Antigonus (Tom Keenan) follows orders and abandons the baby on the coast of Bohemia. When Antigonus is chased off by a bear, baby Perdita is rescued by a shepherd (also played by Tom Keenan) and his goofy son (Tobias Hughes).

After 16 years pass, Perdita grows to be a beautiful young woman (Kristian Cahatol again) who entrances Polixene’s son Florizel (Omar Samuels). Ironically, Polixenes takes issue with their engagement because Perdita is not of royal blood. A comic reckoning is destined in the court of the remorseful King Leontes.

Gabriel Daniels (left) is King Leontes with his wife Hermione (Ava Darrach-Gagnon) and best friend Polixenes (Simon Miron). (Shakespeare in the Ruins / Théâtre Cercle Molière)

One can forgive the most salient issue, that The Winter’s Tale takes place in the sunny, green, idyllic surroundings of the Trappist Monastery in St. Norbert. (If you say it’s winter and we have to take it on faith, that’s fine. It’s not as if we don’t get enough winter in Winnipeg.)

The play is bilingual, performed in both English (for Sicilia) and French (for Bohemia), one of the reasons Shakespeare in the Ruins partnered with St. Boniface’s Théâtre Cercle Molière for the production.

In a way, the streaming version available to ticket holders is the ideal presentation, because it comes with three options: with English and French subtitles; with English audio description; and with French audio description.

The version provided for review was an early screener with no subtitles, presented the way it was intended for audiences attending the show in its usual promenade-style presentation.

The companies proceeded under the assumption that audience members with only one language would manage to interpret the action in much the same way audiences manage to interpret Shakespearean English, with body language, inflection and inference guiding us through the more dense passages.

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Perdita (Kristian Cahatol) is the grown-up daughter of Leontes and Hermione. (Shakespeare in the Ruins / Théâtre Cercle Molière)

That may be true in short passages, but it isn’t really the case for the long haul. For a high school-French person like myself, the later acts set in Bohemia are somewhat incomprehensible. The subtitle option should be considered essential if your French is lacking.

Still, for SiR subscribers, the play gives us the next best thing to enjoying an evening out in the park. As co-directed by Michelle Boulet and Sarah Constible, this filmed version is virtually satisfactory. The company allows some enjoyment with a cabal of its lively repertory cast (Hughes, del Campo and Testar) and some welcome newcomers, especially Gabriel Daniels, who takes on what must surely be one of the most challenging of characters in Shakespearean canon with all due grace and gravitas.

Nevertheless, the linguistic divide only seems to exacerbate the tragedy-comedy divide that plagues the play overall.

Talk about your two solitudes.

Twitter: @FreepKing

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.

RELATED: Riverside Theatre’s old space finds new owners

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.

RELATED: Riverside’s latest production brings life to play about death

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:

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.

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