Review: ‘The Winter’s Tale”

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I have this thing about Shakespeare plays and that thing is this: I won’t read them until I see them. That policy has kept me ignorant of many of his works, but it has drastically increased my pleasure when I eventually have the opportunity to encounter them.

Such is the case with “The Winter’s Tale” (not to be confused with the movie currently—but not for long—playing at a theater near you).

Considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”—meaning it doesn’t fall neatly into the tragedy/comedy/history labeling system, “The Winter’s Tale” has gotten a rare local production courtesy of IndyShakes and Wisdom Tooth Productions at the IndyFringe Building (through March 1).

With a minimal set, contemporary costuming, and small core of actors, some of the grandeur and gravitas is lost at the start. King Leontes’ gathering that opens the play may well be a Geist garden party for all the weight it seems to carry.

But soon the King’s power becomes clear. Barely did we have time to appreciate the peace and love that his jealousy destroys it. He’s Othello without a Iago in his ear, accusing his queen of cavorting with his best friend. His mistaken mindset gets maximized when his former pal escapes with the man Leontes ordered to kill him. So stubborn is Leontes that he won’t even listen to the intervention of the all-knowing Apollo.

Bad move. Horror ensues.

And, as you may have heard, a character exits “pursued by a bear.”

Intermission arrives and, with it, the feeling the Shakespeare has dug himself a hole too deep to get out of.

I won’t reveal too many Act II specifics, the better for newcomers to discover it as I did. Suffice it to say that the “Othello” tone shifts, in part, to “As You Like It” territory. We get comic action courtesy of a creative thief, a spring festival complete with country line dancing (switching out Shakespeare’s lyrics for “King of the Road” and “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” yields mixed results), and we are bathed in a sense of hope as two young lovers come together.

The production shortchanges the fun of disguise in the second act, favoring a cheap eyeglass-removing visual gag. And the lack of signs of aging diminishes some of the impact in a play that is very focused on time and the turning of the years.

But director Richard Roberts and company cleanly and engagingly deliver the play without gimmickry or excessive winking at its artifice. By performing it in the round (well, in the square), it focuses on character and words, demanding a focus on the part of the largely effective cast. The last transformative scene doesn’t quite meet its magical, cathartic potential, but Roberts has crafted a final, silent moment that inventively and beautifully solves a problem in this problem play.

After a long, long wait, I not only have seen “The Winter’s Tale” but, thanks to a modest but fine production, have become a fan. I look forward to seeing it again.

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