A strange fairy tale, rescued magically by Time from tragedy: The Winter’s Tale in the park

Belinda Cornish, Christine Nguyen, Nadien Chu, Sheldon Elter in The Winter’s Tale. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There is a strange magic about a play where brute tragedy gives way to pastoral comedy, realism mixes it up with romance, and dramatic scenes abut presentational vaudeville.

The Winter’s Tale has the optical weirdness of seeing the world through glasses that are half 3-D and half distance correction. In Shakespeare’s late-period fairy tale, a 16-year adventure in separation and reconciliation, death and rebirth is fuelled by a sense of wonder. Big events aren’t caused — they just happen and sink in.

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And right from the start Dave Horak’s Freewill Shakespeare Festival production (which alternates with another odd play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona), invites you to a place at the campfire, where stories get told. The price of admission is telling a tale. And a little kid claims his spot — “a sad tale’s best for winter” — with a story in which he will be a character, figure prominently, and be transformed.

Chris Bullough (centre) as Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

In the course of The Winter’s Tale, you’ll see sheep out strolling in the park. You’ll see a royal baby in a basket rescued by rustic shepherds; you’ll see a rogue balladeer perform, sell sheet music, and steal wallets. A man gets eaten by a bear (ingenious theatrical trickery with a playful surreal image); a king gets a moral flaying and re-education from a woman.  Time passes, 16 years worth. A wintry court becomes a summer revel. And then, magically, a statue grows warm and comes to life. 

It starts with a human mystery: a king is suddenly overcome by violent, unmotivated jealousy that blackens his world, and reduces it to ash. How could it happen, and why? There is no answer.

“My life stands in the level of your dreams,” says Hermione, as she stands accused of adultery with his best friend Polixenes (Jesse Gervais) by King Leontes (Sheldon Elter). Dream has turned to nightmare, on a single line: “too hot! too hot!” And nothing can every be the same, feel the same, look the same, as Elter’s performance, with its feverish mixture of rage, panic, and a kind of perplexity at himself, captures so insightfully.

His smile — and likeable Elter has one of the great ones — suddenly seems pasted on. His heart, as he says, has become “a burden to me.”

For her part Hermione, in a performance of natural high spirits and cordiality from Nadien Chu, is shocked, and defiant. And in the trial scene, her eloquence embraces righteous anger. As the fearless Lady Paulina— who’s dressed like Zelda Fitzgerald on a bender, oddly eclectic costumes by Megan Koshka — Belinda Cornish summons her stalwart defences of Hermione’s honour and and spits them, like an acid shower, at Leontes for his folly.

The scenes in Bohemia, which replace the awkward diffuseness of the court scenes, are introduced by Time — as embodied in the ghostly figure of the dead Mamillius, Leontes’ little son. The idyll is led by Nathan Cuckow and Ben Stevens as an endearingly gullible shepherd and his sweetly dim son, who rescue a lost baby, with delayed complications.

This pair of kindly rustic worthies is no match for the showbiz flamboyance of Autolycus, a shameless troubadour/ pickpocket (“what a fool Honesty is!”) in whom histrionic and capitalist urges find unexpected harmony in Darrin Hagen’s rich array of songs. Chris Bullough is a riot. And as the young lovers Florizel and Perdita, Oscar Derkx and Christine Nguyen have alluring life-affirming charm.

It takes a “wide gap of time” and penitence and magic (with a human stage manager) to restore what is lost in The Winter’s Tale. On the weekend “ambience director” Mother Nature took perverse pleasure in being counter-intuitive: at the moment of supreme imaginative rebirth — “be stone no more” — the thunder roared, the sky darkened still further, and the drizzle became a torrential downpour.

“Winter in storm perpetual,” as Paulina had cursed Leontes earlier, at the moment his little son and wife are declared dead. We know a lot about that; we need our big moments of theatre. And with its strange combination of intimacy and spaciousness, Horak’s production delivers us into rebirth. Wonder – full. 


Freewill Shakespeare Festival

The Winter’s Tale

Directed by: Dave Horak

Starring: Sheldon Elter, Nadien Chu, Belinda Cornish, Jesse Gervais, Christine Nguyen, Oscar Derkx, Nathan Cuckow, Ben Stevens, Chris Bullough

Where: Heritage Amphitheatre, Hawrelak Park

Running: through July 14, odd dates (and July 14 matinee), alternating with The Two Gentlemen of Verona, even dates and matinees.

Tickets: freewillshakespeare.com


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