THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Winter’s Tale’ @ Ohio Shakespeare Festival by Lisa DeBenedictis

Jim Fippin as Old Shepherd, Joe Pine as the Clown. Photo by Scott Custer

Through Sun 8/13

Originally published in 1623, the main plot of The Winter’s Tale is taken from Robert Greene’s pastoral romance Pandisto, published in 1588. It has baffled Shakespearean scholars since it fits neither comedy nor tragedy neatly. The play was originally grouped among the comedies, but some modern scholars have re-labeled the play as one of Shakespeare’s romances. The juxtaposition of drama, comedy, ardor and extreme antagonism coupled with jealously make this tale irresistibly compelling as portrayed by the accomplished cast and crew of the Ohio Shakespeare Festival

The play opens in the joyful home of Leontes, king of Sicilia and his visibly pregnant wife Queen Hermione, their young son Prince Mamillius, and Polixenes, the king of Bohemia. Polixenes is a houseguest of the king of Sicilia and best friends with King Leontes since childhood.

After nine months, Polixenes yearns to return to his own kingdom to tend to affairs and see his son. Leontes desperately attempts to get Polixenes to stay longer, but is unsuccessful. Polixenes protests that he has been away from his kingdom for nine months, but after Leontes’s pregnant wife, Hermione, pleads with him he quickly relents and agrees to stay longer. Leontes is puzzled as to how Hermione convinced Polixenes so easily, and suddenly becomes enraged and possessed with jealousy. Convinced that Polixenes and Hermione are lovers, he orders his loyal confidante Camillo to poison Polinexes. Camillo protests and implores the king to re-evaluate the situation.  King Leontes insists that Hermione and Polixenes are the most loyal kindred spirits and devoutly pure of heart.  King Leontes degenerates into a despotic tyranny at one minute cruel and oppressive and simultaneously insecure and deranged.

The success of this production lies heavily on the masterful performances of Geoff Knox (Leontes), Tess Burgler (Queen Hermione), the always illustrious Lara Mielcarek (as Paulina, wife of Antigonus), Mark Stoffer (Antigonus, Lord of Sicilia), Dean Coutris (Camillo) and Andrew Cruse (Polixenes).

English playwright Charles Bennett once famously stated, “Laurence Olivier could speak William Shakespeare’s lines as naturally as if he were actually thinking them.” The same could be said for Geoff Knox and Tess Burgler, whose tormented love affair runs from passionate to torment within a few scenes. King Leontes entwines jealousy with bouts of insanity and extreme irrationality, but still convinces his wife, the noblemen and the audience with his empathetic portrayal of a man who once had everything until his seething imagination got the better of him.  Knox and Burgler have a genuine tenderness and chemistry, and the first acts are tragic, though tinged with feminine strength and wit. Lara Mielcarek is an audience favorite with her realistic portrayal of Paulina, a loyal subject who speaks her rational mind and courageously defends her queen and infant princess. Paulina: ‘from all dishonesty he can: in this unless he take the course that you have done, Commit me for committing honour, trust it, He shall not rule me.”

The second half is filled with music and mirth.  Autolycus and the shepherd’s son (Joe Pine and Jason Leupold) possess genius comic timing and offer realistic portrayals of secondary characters.  The original music in the Green Show, the choreography and costumes are exemplary, and the cast is as splendid as any company in London, Toronto or New York.  The al fresco venue, Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens, is a treat in itself; with beautiful picnic areas under the moonlight with the fragrance of lily of the valley and the accompaniment of an impassioned bullfrog.

This presentation unfolds in five acts with one intermission and a prequel “Green Show” that is not to be missed.  Green show starts at 7:30; main production begins promptly at 8pm.  Gates to the entrance and gardens open at 6pm.

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