The preview night of Kentucky Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” had the largest crowd of any preview in the company’s history, said producing artistic director Matt Wallace. That was, in part, because there were several thousand high school English teachers in town to grade AP exams, and an organizer announced to the group the festival was opening a new play on that night.
My college best friend was among them. She loves Kentucky Shakespeare; every year when she comes to grade APs, we go see a show. When I texted her to tell her I was parking at Central Park and would come find her, she texted back, “Already here! Already have my T-shirt!”
“The Winter’s Tale” is Kimberly’s favorite. She told me, “It’s basically ‘Othello’ with a happier ending.”
Kimberly loved it, as did her English teacher friends. And so did I.
The similarities between “The Winter’s Tale” and “Othello” were heightened in this production, directed by Amy Attaway, as Leontes was played by Dathan Hooper, a powerful actor of color. King Leontes, like Othello, slips into an obsessive and violent rage when he thinks his demure and doting wife Hermione (Maggie Lou Rader) has cuckolded him with and is pregnant by his best friend from childhood, King Polixenes (Gregory Maupin).
Even when her innocence is “verified” by Apollo’s oracle, Leontes refuses to believe it and orders his wife jailed, his best friend pardoned and his newly born baby daughter exiled and left in a basket on a beach. Her exiler, Antigonus (Kyle Ware), is mauled to death by a bear — this is the famous “exit, pursued by a bear” play, which is cleverly staged.
For Leontes’ failure to heed the god’s warning about falsely punishing innocents, his beloved son is mysteriously struck down — his wife apparently follows.
Old Shepard (Jon Huffman) and his goofy son Clown (Zachary Burrell) rescue the baby girl, Perdita (Arielle Leverett) and raise her to be a sister to Clown. Jump forward 16 years, and she is being courted by Polixines’ son, Prince Florizel (Tony Milder). Of course, Polixines believes she’s the child of Old Shepard, not of Polixines’ king friend from childhood, so he will not grant his approval to this wedding.
No spoilers, but the play concludes by turning grim events into a cause for celebration.
Lately on social media, I’ve seen a lot of people from my generation discuss watching old, favorite movies from the late 1980s and early ’90s and being aghast at how inappropriate Bill Murray’s sexual advances are in “Ghostbusters” or how racist “Sixteen Candles” is thanks to its treatment of exchange student Long Duk Dong.
In this current political climate, where all of my friends work hard to be “extra-woke,” Shakespeare is really jarring. Leontes goes from loving husband to seething abuser in a matter of minutes. Over the course of the play, he threatens to murder his baby, orders the poisoning death of his best friend, and blasphemes a god.
This is not a good guy. He’s a cruel serial abuser of not just his wife, but his friends and subjects.
And yet (spoiler) he’s handsomely rewarded at the end.
Hermione is victimized over and over — and actress Rader is excellent during her scenes of struggle and grief. It’s another woman that stands up for her, one of her ladies Paulina, played by Abigail Bailey Maupin, who is superb in this role.
Shakespeare may be timeless, but it’s tough to watch in 2016.
Huffman brought his comedy A-game to the play as Old Shepard. It’s great to see an actor with such natural gravitas get his goof on. The best scenes of the show were largely the ones with Huffman, Burrell and Neill Robertson’s exquisite “rogue” Autolycus. Good on director Amy Attaway for taking full advantage of Robertson’s physical comedy, singing and dancing chops.
The women’s costumes for the play were especially exquisite; some of the men’s were odd, although I trust that designer Donna Lawrence-Downs created them to be historically accurate.
Laura Ellis’s sound design shouldn’t be overlooked; the play featured a crying baby and the sound changed subtly depending how far the baby (or prop) was from the edge of the stage or how it was being held.
“The Winter’s Tale” is free in Central Park June 18-19, June 21-26, July 14, 17, 19, 22, 23. The pre-performances start around 7:15 p.m. and the play starts at 8 p.m.