by Jeff Grygny
A stubborn monarch, a wronged queen, a lost princess, and a cunning rogue: these are among the dramatis personae of A Winter’s Tale, (which, curiously, debuts in midsummer) by the Summit Players Theatre, who tour all over the Wisconsin park system in the summertime. For many of us this was the first live theater in many a moon, and, to judge by the giddy enthusiasm of both the actors of last week’s performance at Havenwoods State park, and the audience, sitting in lawn chairs under the trees, this show is like a tasty appetizer: it whets a ravenous hunger.
While A Winter’s Tale is often considered one of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic and lyrical plays, the Summit ensemble, under the direction of Maureen Kilmurry, aims for family fun. They play this 75 minute edited version as what it really is: a fairy tale. In uniforms of jeans and tennis shoes, they’re all smiles as they whip costume pieces on and off to become lords or peasants as needed. The acting is broadly cartoonish, and the plentiful sight gags are well thought out with accessibility in mind: placards invite us to make sound effects like “bird song” and “commotion.” A couple of sheep puppets sing a ditty to the accompaniment of a ukulele (which seems the perfect instrument for this shoebox production). And the most infamous of all stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear” is accomplished with a pair of furry mittens (the stuffed black bear in the Havenwoods nature center lobby likely never dreamed it would be in such literary company.)
This doesn’t in any way imply disrespect for the play; it works really well as a fractured fairy tale. The players invest their line-drawing characters with just enough emotional truth to summon the magic of story. True, the first act doesn’t seem much like a promising family show, with a king suspecting his pregnant wife of adultery, throwing her in prison, where she gives birth, and later collapses at her trial, apparently dead, then orders the infant princess to be exposed in the wild in a distant country. But we forget that fairy tales are often cruel in the beginning. And the plot soon turns to whimsy. True, someone does get eaten—bears will be bears—but he does get a decent burial at the hands of the shepherds who find and raise the abandoned baby. And between Texas-accented peasants, a pair of frustrated lovers, an elaborate sheep-shearing party, and the (finally) repentant king, everything comes through hilarity to a surprisingly touching resolution.
All the young players comport themselves with infectious charm. Michael Nicholas and Caroline Norton display dramatic and comic chemistry as fathers and sons, both royal and rustic. Maura Atwood brings winsome grace to her dual roles as the queen and the rogue, and the charismatic Kaylene Howard transcends the silliness when she speaks truth to power as a counselor scolding the king for his stupidity.
In some ways, A Winter’s Tale is strangely resonant to the difficult year we’ve just been through. We can easily see traits of a recent pigheaded leader in King Leontes. And in Hermione, [Spoiler Alert] returning to her life at last after a long seclusion, we can not only recognize ourselves, but celebrate the return of theater into our lives. Let’s hope it lasts!
Summit Players Theatre presents
A Winter’s Tale
by William Shakespeare
returning to Havenwoods State Forest on August 9 at 7:00
for a full schedule visit