Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Brilliant by Half: Robert Falls' Stellar Production Can't Solve Imbalance of 'The Winter's Tale' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Winter's Tale
by William Shakespeare 
directed by Robert Falls
Goodman Theatre, Chicago 
Thru June 9

At The Winter's Tale on Monday night, as soon as the lights came up for intermission I turned to my friend Brad and said, "I really liked that."

Perhaps such exuberance shouldn't have been so surprising.

After all it is a play by the most venerated writer of all-time, Sir William Shakespeare, being staged by Chicago's legendary Goodman Theatre under the direction of their world-renowned artistic director, Robert Falls.

Although I generally do not embrace the Bard's work with the passion of people like Brad--a rather devout Shakespearean--I did much enjoy Falls' modernized 2013 production of Measure For Measure.

As with that rendition, as well as Julius Caesar both on Broadway in 2005 with Denzel Washington and in 2013 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and also a production of Hamlet I once saw in Dallas, I usually like when Shakespearean plays are performed in modern dress.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
No disrespect to traditionalists as I've seen a number of fine productions in Elizabethan garb, but somehow the modern dress helps me connect with the language--or perhaps not worry so much about what I'm missing--in ways I've valued.

Never before had I seen nor read The Winter's Tale, but I made a point of reading the synopsis on Wikipedia.

I find that coming in with basic familiarity with the storyline aids my ability to focus in the theater--or in the park--and typically abets my overall appreciation.

And at the Goodman, before intermission--The Winter's Tale is technically four acts, split after two--I was largely enamored.

Sure, the narrative seemed a tad dark as King Leontes of Sicily (an excellent Dan Donohue) goes from King Polixenes of Bohemia's (Nathan Hosner) BFF to mortal enemy at warp speed, as soon as Leontes' pregnant wife Queen Hermione (the always great Kate Fry) convinces Polixenes to extend his visit.

An enraged Leontes becomes certain than his pal had knocked up his gal, and calls for Camillo (the likewise routinely stellar Henry Godinez) to have him offed.

You can explore what happens from there on your own, but with the kings wearing suits, women in relatively contemporary dresses, a minimalist, mirror-laden set design by Walt Spangler, terrific acting including by Christiana Clark as Hermione's take-no-BS pal Paulina and my comprehension seemingly pretty solid, as I said to Brad:

"I really liked that."

And then after intermission, The Winter's Tale seemed to become an entirely divergent, summery affair.

As Brad relayed afterward, the play is known for this imbalance, which gets it labeled a "problem play," not readily dubbed a "tragedy" or "comedy."

He said many productions try to better fuse the tonality, and that he appreciated Falls' going gung-ho with the mirth after intermission, even if it felt far different than what came before.

But while I appreciated some nice comedy from Philip Earl Johnson--whom I recognized from Kenosha's Renaissance Faire--as Autolycus, and work by Xavier Bleuel (Florizel), Chloe Baldwin (Perdita) and others, I can't deny "WTF?" thoughts popping into my head.

More acutely than often I was very much enjoying a Shakespeare play, in part due to its darkness, and then it becomes Monty Python?

The fault, dear Bard, must be with myself, but I have no idea why Sir Will took such a detour.

And I can't say I much cared, except for wanting The Winter's Tale to come to an end.

Given his notes in the Playbill and this discussion with Neil Steinberg of the Chicago Sun-Times, Falls clearly knew the challenge of taking on this difficult work.

Brad appreciated the ballsiness with which Falls approached The Winter's Tale, and particularly with the strong first half, I can still recommend it.

But in being a follower of Robert Falls on Twitter and knowing his politics to whatever degree that allows, I didn't think it coincidental that this iteration had the capricious, tyrannical King Leontes played by a guy with bright orange hair.

As great theater artists do--and Falls certainly is one--he seemed to using classic theater to comment on modern times (much as he had with his recent adaptation of Ibsen's Enemy of the People).

If anything, the metaphor seemed too obvious, but I appreciated it.

The whimsical second half didn't seemingly allow for such contemporary commentary--as least not acute enough to clue me in--and the statement Falls seemed to be making became muddled.

A tale of two halves, and for me, only the first was the best of times.

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