The Ohio Shakespeare Festival production of The Winter’s Tale, directed by Terry Burgler, underscores King Leontes’ impulsive and violent actions that cost him his family, friend, and loyal subjects. Written by Shakespeare in 1611 towards the end of his life, the play is a tragicomedy with a farce interwoven into the story of the King and his penance. The primary source for the play was the prose romance Pandosto by Robert Greene (1588). In Pandosto, Bellaria (Hermione) dies after her trial and the remorseful Pandosto (Leontes) commits suicide. Although Shakespeare followed Pandosto’s plot and used Greene’s language verbatim in some passages, he instead gave a happy ending to his play. At the end of The Winter’s Tale, Hermione returns before a united court of Leontes' family, friends, and subjects.
At the outdoor stage located in the lagoon area of the Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, Akron, the performance takes place on a stage 12 feet (depth) x 32 feet (length) x 20 feet (height) which is surrounded by trees, flowers, meadow, and two “tea houses” (tower structures built by Frank Siberling, who built the estate). This outdoor stage is a perfect space to stage The Winter’s Tale in which the passage of time plays a crucial role. The performance began in dusk and by the time when the character of Time, played by Ryan Zarecki in a white robe and silver haired wig appears at the beginning of Act IV (Act II of the performance), the surroundings were dark. The performance ended as the crescent moon appeared behind a tree.
The ensemble of actors are articulate, clear, and believable in this mysterious play (it's known as a problem play for its ambiguities and challenges in staging). Geoff Knox portrays King Leontes, who is consumed with jealousy, paranoia, and obsession. Knox shows his innate personality as soon as he enters the stage—nervous, tense, and uneasy—and provides the audience with a sense of foreboding. Knox demonstrates how Leontes’ suspicion is magnified as he delivers sarcastic lines to his son Mamillius, played by Owen Cruse.
Knox’s edginess contrasts his friend and guest at his court, the King of Bohemia, Polixenes (Andrew Cruse). Cruse’s Bohemian king brightens the atmosphere of the court with a warm, easygoing, and cheerful personality. The trouble begins when Hermione, on her husband’s request, persuades Polixenes to stay another week in Sicilia. Warned by Camillo about Leontes’ suspicion and plot to kill him, Polixenes flees, accompanied by Camillo. Camillo, being a man of conscience and integrity, refuses Leontes’ order to assassinate the King of Bohemia. Unlike Camillo, Antigonus (a lord of Sicilia, Mark Stoffer) follows Leontes’ order to abandon Perdita (his newborn child whom Leontes suspects to be a “bastard” of Polixenes and Hermione) in “some remote and desert place.”
Tess Burgler’s Hermione underscores a drastic change from a peaceful and content queen to a distraught and condemned one. In spite of the baseless suspicion and cruel punishment imposed on her, Burgler’s Hermione does not lose her integrity while pleading with her husband at the trial. Lara Mielcarek’s Paulina, the lady-in-waiting to Hermione, is excellent in portraying an articulate and honest woman. Serving as the voice of reason and conscience, Mielcarek’s outspoken and fearless Paulina stands up for what is right. When Leontes criticizes Paulina’s husband Antigonus for his inability to control her, Antigonus responds: “Hang all the husbands/That cannot do that feat, you’ll leave yourself/Hardly one subject.” Reflecting today's “reality,” his lines invite laughter and nods from the audience.
The sheep-shearing festival scene between the opening and ending court scenes is lively with dance and music, yet was staged in a way that didn't interfere with the play's themes of repentance and reconciliation. Amy Tegan Dick’s Perdita bears a close resemblance to Burgler’s Hermione. Tegan Dick’s Perdita and Trevor Buda’s Florizel make a lovely, young couple who serve as hope for the future. Disguised as old wise men, Cruse’s Polixenes and Courtis’s Camillo add a farcical dimension to this scene.
Jason Leupold plays Autolycus, a pickpocket, conman, and quick-witted rogue. Leupold, who is an accomplished musician, plays the guitar and sings all the songs (with 17th century music arranged by music director Mark Stoffer). Presenting Autolycus as a musical virtuoso helps to integrate this “out-of-place” character with the rest of the dramatic personae.
One of the most charming and exciting scenes of the festival is the routine with three acrobats. Adam Hass-Hill, Ryan Zarecki, and Tess Burgler exhibit seamless tumbling work, flips, handstands, and pyramids (choreographed by Katie Zarecki).
Costume designer Kesley Tomlinson contrasts these two worlds through the texture and motifs of the costumes. She uses patterns of vines and leaves on heavy-textured garments for some of the characters at the court, including Camillo and Paulina, suggesting their status in contrast to the much lighter and simpler costumes of the shepherds played by Jim Fippin and Joe Pine.
The Ohio Shakespeare Festival has a simple and direct way when approaching Shakespeare and it works well with The Winter’s Tale. For example, staging Antigonus’s exit “pursued by a bear” (Act III, sc. 3) is often open to interpretation in different productions. In this version, the bear appears as only a hairy arm emerging from the center opening of the curtain. In the final scene, where the statue of Hermione comes to life, the effect is breathtaking. Wearing ghostly makeup, the statue of Hermione looks like a corpse. The presence of this ghostly “statue” which then comes to life reflects the story of the years Hermione has lost and Leontes has suffered from his guilty conscience.
Unlike OSF’s first summer show this year As You Like It, there is no elaborate dance finale. So as soon as Leontes is reunited with his family, the reincarnated Hermione and his lost daughter Perdita, and Paulina is betrothed to Camillo, the characters all retire upstage as the light quickly fades out, allowing no room for potential incredulousness caused by Paulina's unexplained magic and the blending of these two fantastical stories.