The Winter’s Tale, told in the dead of summer
Tragedy and Comedy Blend Nicely at American Players
Before anyone gets to experience American Players Theatre’s new indoor Touchstone space, the Up The Hill outdoor stage is alive with fresh theatrics from classic material. In this winter story from The Bard, two ‘kings’ and their offspring had a muggy grand opening night in late June 2009.
APT’s production of The Winter’s Tale is enjoyable for even for the most novice Shakespeare audience, but it helps that the players have pretty good source material in this case. As one of Shakespeare’s later written plays, it is an easily comprehendable drama and also enjoyably jocular. The direction here is taut, the acting crisp and rich, and the design is like nature’s echo, compelling and warm.
The first half of Tale is saturated with the elements of Shakespeare’s earlier tragedies with jealousy, paranoia, obsession and the inevitable final sleep. The second half takes an about face and gives us clowning, gaiety, and laughter leading to an eventual rebirth.
It’s as though Shakespeare wrote the first draft of a tragedy that came up a couple of acts short and on a whim he decided to make happiness bloom by the end. With such contrasting elements, it could be easy for the end product to come out as uneven as a patient with schizophrenia. But the production ambles along cleanly — no medication necessary.
All of the players meld well with their roles to make their action or reaction believable and natural. There are points during the play that are so intense audience members cease to be mere spectators and become instead to be emotional investors in the drama. Not even the humidity or high temperatures repressed the chills solicited near the end of the first half when sudden death strikes.
Standouts among the players include David Daniel as Leontes, Steve Haggard as a nameless Clown, Catherine Lynn Davis as Paulina, and Brian Mani as Autolycus.
Daniel is magnanimous as the paranoiac king. His detached demeanor combined a his relentless quest to call out his wife for infidelity is palpable. With only a whisper of proof for her suspected behavior, Daniel somehow makes the king compassionate as if by magic. Davis gives Paulina a life beyond mere character and the audience a necessary exposition with verve. Mani takes his malevolent rogue to such entertaining levels that an audience will all but forgive his incessant cheating, lying, and stealing. Haggard is goofily hilarious as the Clown shepherd, but checks himself before leaping into a full-fledged cartoon.
If the acting of in Tale shines, then it’s the APT stage design that intensifies the illumination. The production has been set in the late 19th (and early 20th) century. Costumes are beautifully tailored without becoming obnoxious or out of place. A barebones set is comprised of one large platform dipped way low on one corner, perhaps reflecting the imbalance of the king’s court and his own plight. Near the play’s end, a smaller platform appears at the dipped corner — signifying a return to order. Set changes are inventively pared down to the modified placement of a single and simple chair.
Fitz Patton’s sound design and original music is to be commended for textual support. Music is heard throughout, like in the haunting notes of a violin enriching the emotional swells. Direction by David Frank holds it all together like an evenly distributed adhesive.
The Winter’s Tale continues a repertory season with Comedy Of Errors, The Philanderer, Hay Fever, and more through September at the APT stages. Tickets can be purchased by calling 608.588.2361 or visit The Play in the Woods website.
Tickets and more articles on the performing arts can always be found at Footlights Milwaukee.