THEATER | A moving and entertaining "Winter's Tale" at the Guthrie Theater

Devon Solwold, Michael Hayden, Bill McCallum, and Michelle O'Neill in The Winter's Tale. Photo by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy Guthrie Theater.

I attended Friday night's performance of the Guthrie's new production of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale with my friend Katie, and at one point near the end of the play I was moved to butt my head against her shoulder. In another context that might have been a gesture of boredom, or in some cultures perhaps a come-on, but in this case I just had to butt my head against someone's shoulder because the show was so good. This is one of the best Shakespeare productions I've ever seen.

I'm no scholar of early modern literature, but as it happens Katie is, and she filled me in as to why The Winter's Tale is one of the most revered and controversial of Shakespeare's plays. With its long passage of time, its invocation of myth and magic, and its unusual stage direction ("Exit, pursued by a bear"), The Winter's Tale is ambiguous and absorbing. This was the first production of the play I'd seen, and while there were directorial choices I'd like to have seen made differently, director Jonathan Munby's complex production works in every way. One of the best things about it is that it doesn't feel definitive—it feels like an invitation to spend a lifetime with this masterpiece of Western literature.

the winter's tale, presented through march 27 at the guthrie theater. for tickets ($24-$64) and information, see guthrietheater.org.

In contrast to the Acting Company's Comedy of Errors—recently seen on the Guthrie's McGuire Proscenium Stage—this Winter's Tale dons Shakespeare's unparalleled language like it's slipping into a perfectly-fitting glove. The line readings sound natural and there's no problem following the actors' meaning: the cast members glory in the clever and sometimes farcical plot.

A sterling cast it is, led by Michael Hayden and Bill McCallum as Leontes and Polixenes respectively, kings whose brotherly relationship is severed when Leontes accuses Polixenes of having adulterous relations with Leontes's wife Hermione (Michelle O'Neill). Tragedy ensues, and Act Two fast-forwards 16 years, when Leontes's cast-off daughter Perdita (Christine Weber) has fallen in love with Polixenes's son Florizel (Juan Rivera Lebron)—which would be convenient, except that no one realizes Perdita is anything more than a shepherd's daughter, and fraternizing with the locals was not cool when you were an ancient prince. (Well, at least not to the point of marrying them.)

Alexander Dodge's gorgeous set design places Act One in the 1940s and Act Two in the 60s. Katie points out that the distinction between the court and the countryside is crucially important in this play, and this production "totally gets that." The court's tiled floor, molded walls towering upstage, seems vast—particularly when Leontes lies in its center, isolated by his grave folly. The shepherds are made to be free-loving hippies, which could be horribly awkward but is played here with perfect timing and tone, particularly by the seemingly infallible actors John Catron and Emily Gunyou Halaas. Music by Adam Wernick is incorporated effectively, as is a subtle and tremendously effective sound design by Scott W. Edwards. Costume desinger Linda Cho deserves a special Ivey just for the suits Catron and Raye Birk show up in when, near the play's conclusion, the two shepherds are favored by fortune.

At the heart of this production's success are the uniformly strong characterizations, particularly by Hayden and McCallum in the crucial roles of the estranged kings. Hayden's performance is extreme: he starts to fray as soon as the play begins, and within minutes he's entirely unhinged. A more subtle take on the character would certainly be possible, but Hayden is so powerful that I'm not going to quibble. As mother-daughter pair Hermione and Perdita, O'Neill and Weber are regal and empathetic: there aren't many actresses who could stand in a forest in a handmade dress and a wreath of flowers and look unmistakably like royalty, but Weber is certainly one.

With its lucid, compelling, gleefully entertaining presentation of a classic story, The Winter's Tale has it all. It's only February, but I'm going to call it: this will likely prove to be one of the best shows of the year.

818 S. 2nd St.
Minneapolis, MN 55415
617-377-2224

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    Jay Gabler's picture
    Jay Gabler

    Jay Gabler (@JayGabler) is a digital producer at The Current and Classical MPR.