I really ought to apologize to Robert Falls.
As much as I respect the talent of the artistic director of the Goodman Theatre, as much as I've been enjoying the plays that he directs for ... golly ... the past 35 years, I went to see "The Winter's Tale" at the Goodman Theatre Thursday night with, well, not a sense of dread, exactly, but a certain air of resignation.
A sense of doubt.
This is not "Hamlet." This is not "Richard III" or "King Lear" or even "Romeo and Juliet." "The Winter's Tale" is some strange, unfamiliar, minor, late Shakespeare mish-mash that I had never seen nor wanted to see. Study proved fruitless. An hour conversation with Falls barely nudged my expectations. Even he wasn't certain what the play is about.
"I've been working on it for a year and I barely know what it's about," he said, over lunch at Petterino's.
And I believed him.
Adding to my unease was this: "The Winter's Tale" is the play the Sun-Times was taking our contest winners to see. I was responsible. We had a lovely party beforehand in the Goodman's Alice space, and I lingered, nursing my spring water, not quite ready to will myself into the theater to see ... what?
Something about jealousy. A dramatic hybrid: an act of drama followed by an act of clowning. Some monstrosity, neither fish nor foul.
Well, I mused, heading toward my seat, expectation mingled with unease, if anyone can pull this off, it's Bob.
Does he ever. Turns out that his pretending not to know what the play is about was merely a taste of his trademark trickster smokescreen. He knows exactly what it's about, and brought in just the right help to drive the tale home.
What I hadn't anticipated, before the fact, is that no director, no matter how good, puts on a play alone. I had overlooked the key role that great acting plays in rescuing dubious material, in this case, the lunge from doting friend to jealous fiend that King Leonites executes at the start of the play, a shift that seems daft on paper, but natural and terrifying when performed by Dan Donohue, making his Goodman Theatre debut. Veteran of 30 productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, he marches Leonites into the realm of great Shakespearean tragic figures, along with Lear and Othello and Richard III.
Leonides' turns on his blameless wife, Hermione, played with perfection by Kate Fry. Her newborn daughter abandoned to the mercy of crows and vultures, she delivers a riveting speech, explaining how Leonides' threatened punishments for her imaginary crimes are mere nothings.
"The bug which you would fright me with, I seek," she says. "To me can life be no commodity ... Tell me what blessings I have here alive, that I should fear to die?"
Donohue and Fry make the first act work—it's as searing as "Hecuba"— but its highlight is Christiana Clark, as the queen's lady, Paulina. Her angry, courageous keelhauling of Leonides has the audience leaning forward in their seats, hanging on every word.
"What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me?" she spits out, telling him to bring them on. The boatload of contempt she packs into that word, "tyrant" is worth the price of admission. (Kris Vire calls her performance both "stunning" and "blistering" in his spot-on review in the Sun-Times).
|Chloe Baldwin, right, enlivens the second act.|
I won't argue that "The Winter's Tale" is ripped from the headlines. But, as to be expected with Bob Falls, particularly during our current national torment, all play choices are political. Just as his last play, Ibsen's "Enemy of the People" was a rebuke practically ordered up by our president, so it can't be an accident that he's now offering a play where, one after another, courtiers who are supposed to be subservient instead stand up to a capricious and powerful despot who has lost his reason. Who one after another hold their ground and say, in essence, "Go ahead and kill me. I'm telling you the truth anyway."
Only in fiction, alas.
"The Winter's Tale" is Bob Falls at his best, directing a cast of excellent actors who know what they're doing, with a modern set by Walt Spangler that gives its own drama and austerity to the proceedings. It is really a Chicago theatrical moment not to missed—onstage only for a few more weeks, until June 9. The word my wife used was "excellent"—three times in her immediate summation of the experience. "The Winter's Tale" is truly excellent, as if an unknown Shakespeare masterpiece were discovered and performed for the first time.