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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Winter's TaleGreat River Shakespeare Festival
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Imbroglio and Loch Mess

Benjamin Boucvalt and De'onna Prince
Photo by Dan Norman
Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, one of three plays being staged at Great River Shakespeare Festival this season, is a humdinger, and I am not sure I mean that in a good way. The first three acts of Shakespeare's five, compressed in contemporary performance into Act One, are perversely dark. The last two acts, here performed as Act Two, take a completely different tone, with the substance of the original fourth act being a giddy pastoral comedy, and the fifth act being in line with Shakespeare's late romances, in which everyone is reconciled, notwithstanding the fact that a couple of characters from the play's first half had tragically died. It is like a crazy, fanciful animal made up of part ostrich, part kitten, and part alligator–hard to tell whether to laugh at it, cozy up to it, or fear it.

In the first half, best-friends since childhood Leontes, King of Sicilia, and Polixenes, King of Bohemia, are just winding up a nine-month long visit in Sicilia. Polixenes states that it is time for him to return to his kingdom to look after affairs there and to see his newborn son. Leontes tries to coax his boon companion to stay longer, but Polixenes' mind is made up. That is until Hermione, Leontes' wife, who herself is nearing the end of a pregnancy, appeals to Polixenes, and the Bohemian king decides to stay on after all. Leontes should be pleased, since he wanted his friend to stay, but instead he is inflamed with jealousy, jumping to the conclusion that Hermione and Polixenes are having an affair.

Everyone in the court tries to convince Leontes of his error and of Hermione's virtue, to no avail. His jealous rage triggers the death of their only son and, shortly after giving birth to a daughter, Hermione's demise as well. Leontes believes the child to be the offspring of his imagined tryst between Hermione and Polixenes and sends his trusted nobleman Antigonus to abandon the baby in a remote spot.

That's Act One, and it has always been hard for me to swallow. Othello was also undone by the green-eyed monster, but at least in his case Iago plotted to provoke Othello's insane jealousy. Leontes brings it on all by himself, with no evidence other than observing his friend and his wife being at ease with one another, and the fact that she succeeded in persuading Polixenes to remain, when he could not. Leontes pays a terrible price for his insanity and later shows remorse, but the audience has little, if any sympathy for him.

At the start of the second act, "time" appears as a majestically dressed character, to announce that we are now propelled forward sixteen years from when the first half left off. We are accustomed to stage and screen narratives making such leaps in time, but it must have been such a novelty in Shakespeare's time that he felt a need to make the explanation a part of the play. So, sixteen years later we are in Bohemia, where Polixenes's son–the one he had meant to go home to see when newborn–is now a strapping young man named Florizel. The infant daughter of Leontes and Hermione, it turns out, was left by Antigonus on the shores of Bohemia and found by an old Shepherd who raised the girl, named Perdita, along with her grown son, a simpleton referred to as a Clown. Florizel and Perdita, now a lovely young lady, meet, and you can guess what that leads to. Throw in a devious swindler named Autolycus, and this portion of the play becomes a pastoral comedy. It is indeed very funny, particularly Autolycus' shenanigans to bamboozle the Clown and the Shepherd.

The final portion of the play, Shakespeare's fifth act, brings everyone back to Sicilia, where Leontes remains in mourning for his wife and his children. Now we stand on the terrain of the late romances, where jagged edges are resolved and happy endings miraculously occur. The manner in which Shakespeare works this out requires an enormous suspension of disbelief, but I suppose if Shakespeare wanted us to believe in this tale, who am I to quibble. He also wanted us to accept the mingling of ancient Greek myth–the Oracle of Delphus is called as a witness at Hermione's trial–with the medieval kingdoms of Sicilia and Bohemia, and the notion that two boys who grew up together each ended up as king of two different states, and that a king could be away from his throne for nine months without having usurpers take his place. You'll be well ahead of the game if you can just buy the whole package.

Eight actors appear in the play's fifteen parts, in addition to pitching in as court nobles, messengers, mariners and such. The only actor who has just one role is Benjamin Boucvalt, a formidable tempest of misguided wrath as Leontes, subdued into a lonely, remorseful and contrite sovereign sixteen years later. It is a striking performance, but it hardly seems as if it belongs in the same play as Tarah Flanagan's delightfully jocular Autolycus, working with physical comedy, word play, and a comical costume that triggers laughs all by itself.

Emily Fury Daly splits the difference between comedy and tragedy, a gust of righteous defiance as the falsely accused Hermione, torn to despair by her losses–and then, the insipid Clown, who would seem to have been given no purpose by the playwright than to provoke laughter, which Daly does most handily. De'Onna Prince similarly does splendid work with two quite different characters: the old Shepherd, who matches kindness with craftiness; and Hermione's loyal noblewoman, Paulina, whose defense of her queen never rests. Florizel is played by Duncan Macintyre and Perdita by Allegra Batara, and the two make a winsome pair of young lovers. Batara also operates a life-size puppet that represents the young prince in Act One.

Christopher Gershon is one of the treasures of Great River, but isn't given a chance to shine as Polixenes and Antigonus–that is until, as Polixenes, he and the nobleman Camillo, sturdily played by Michael Fitzpatrick, disguise themselves to spy upon Florizel and see if it is true that he, a royal prince and heir to the throne, intends to do the unthinkable and marry a poor shepherd's daughter. The disguises bring out a fountain of playfulness that is otherwise not part of their character.

That last comment, about bringing out playfulness where possible, is a credit to Doug Scholz-Carlson's direction, which lets no opportunity to unearth the many nuggets of entertainment buried within The Winter's Tale, which are scarce in the first act but abundant in the second. He also makes good use of the intimacy afforded by Great River's decision to bring the audience on stage this season, creating a thrust playing area surrounded on three sides by risers on which the audience is seated.

The set design is simple but effective. Travel trunks scattered on stage are opened early on for the actors to retrieve and don their costumes, and for the rest of the play the trunks are placed as needed to become benches, tables, boulders, and whatever else the script calls for. Sarah Bahr designed the costumes, which are excellent throughout, bringing color and vibrancy to the stage.

Great River Shakespeare Festival does its customary excellent work to bring the play to life. The disparate parts of the play are well mounted as directed by Scholz-Carlson, with excellent performances from everyone in the cast. It is not the fault of any of those talented persons that the play lacks coherence. Lay the blame for that at Shakespeare's feet. Is it heresy to say that not all of the Bard's plays are masterpieces, and that a few–had they been scripted by anyone else–would likely have been long forgotten? I dare say that The Winter's Tale might have suffered such a fate.

Since it is Shakespeare and therefore is remembered, the opportunity to see it mounted in the more than capable hands of the Great River Shakespeare Festival is worth seizing, if only for its performances that range from impassioned to hilarious. As a bonus, you will see enacted the strangest of all stage directions, meant to account for the demise of poor Antigonus after he places the infant princess where she will undoubtedly be found and cared for. That direction is: "Exit, persuaded by a bear." No other play, Shakespeare or otherwise, offers you that.

Season 20 of the Great River Shakespeare Festival continues through July 30, 2023, with The Winter's Tale in rotation with As You Like It and Imbroglio at the DuFresne Performing Arts Center of Winona State University, 450 Johnson Street, Winona MN. Tickets: $41 - $51; Tuesday evening performances are $12. Student rush with valid ID: $5:00 at box office, 15 minutes before curtain. Discount Pass for all three mainstage shows are available. For tickets and information, please visit or call 507-474-7900.

Playwright: William Shakespeare; Director: Doug Scholz-Carlson; Scenic and Properties Design: Ivy Treccani; Costume Design: Sarah Bahr; Lighting Design: Avery Reagan; Sound Design: Jeff Polunas; Wig and Makeup Design: Kenyana Trambles; Voice and Text Coach: Katie Cunningham; Intimacy Director: Tonia Sina; Puppetry Consultants: Timmy Turner & Stephanie Jones; Costume Design Assistant: Jenna Jamison; Lighting Design Assistant: James Balistreri; Stage Manager: Alexander Carey; Assistant Stage Manager: Kristen Benner

Cast: Alegra Batara (Perdita/Mamillius/Emilia/ Mariner), Benjamin Boucvalt (Leontes), Emily Fury Daly (Hermione/Clown), Michael Fitzpatrick (Camillo/Cleomones), Tarah Flanagan (Time/Autolycus), Christopher Gerson (Polixenes/Antigonus), Duncan McIntyre (Florizel/Servant/Lord), De'Onna Prince (Paulina/Old Shepherd).