Monday, July 3, 2023

The Winter's Tale in the Heart of Summer—Exactly As You Like It at the Great River Shakespeare Festival

The Winter's Tale
. Dir. Doug Scholz-Carlson. Perf. Benjamin Boucvalt, Emily Fury Daly, Christopher Gerson, De'Onna Prince, Michael Fitzpatrick, Alegra Batara, Duncan McIntyre, and Tarah Flanagan. Great River Shakespeare Festival. Winona, Minnesota. 2023.

The Great River Shakespeare Festival is in its twentieth season. I've been attending as often as I can since 2008, and I have never seen a bad show.

In fact, I've never seen anything but terrific, tremendous, passionate Shakespeare performed with enthusiasm, intelligence, and unadulterated joy. Well, except the tragedies, which are performed with appropriate sorrow.

I wanted to see the shows early in the run this year, but the timing worked out so that I've only been able to see one of two Shakespeare plays (one of three main offerings) so far.

The Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's later plays, which makes it a bit more complex than earlier fare like A Midsummer Night's Dream. The first half has quite a number of tragic elements; the second half works to redeem those elements.

The GRSF's production is one of the best I've ever seen. With only eight actors, the festival presents a deep, complicated, hysterical, devastating, angry, forgiving, troubling, redemptive show.

I'll provide a few details below, but, if you're anywhere near the Twin Cities, go see the shows at the GRSF for yourself. Winona is a pleasant, scenic, two-hour drive from Minneapolis / St. Paul, and the shows rival (and even exceed) Shakespeare productions in the Cities. The festival runs through the end of July, so you have time to make plans—or, as I did, to take a last-minute drive down for a matinee and return the same day. You will not regret it.

And now, on to Random Impressive Details:


Whether you've been to GRSF before or not, you'll likely be interested in the thrust stage arrangement. Instead of using the usual auditorium seating, they've moved the audience onto the stage, surrounding it on three sides:

This makes for a very intimate theatrical experience. The actors are right there (so be careful what comments you make during the performance). It might make some audience members a bit uncomfortable, but, after only a little while, you feel much more engaged with the play, its story, and its storytellers.

Such a minimal stage means a couple of things. First, it means minimal sets. Everything on that stage (and there isn't much) has a definite purpose. And these actors, in this show, use that to its full advantage. Second, it means that the lighting could either be very basic (bright, dimmer, even dimmer, off) or very subtle. This production took the second route. Every lighting cue, though not immediately noticeable, contributes to the scene, enhancing what's there and inviting the audience in.


So many of the decisions this production makes are intriguing and purposeful. Some shows will make a decision that is just a gimmick—it's there for shock value or even to pander to an audience's perceived wants—but it isn't integrated into the rest of the play. There's nothing like that here. Everything has been extremely thoughtfully considered, and it all works together to form an organic whole. For example, this Hermione is much angrier than other Hermiones I've seen (yes, including Granger). She stands on a trunk at upstage right during her trial scene, and her righteous outrage, which I initially found a bit off-putting, grows until we all feel it with her. Just before intermission, Hermione's ghost delivers lines that Antigonus quotes as hearing in a dream or vision. In the last scene, Hermione's statue stands in the same location, tying that legitimate anger at injustice to an almost-unbelievable chance for forgiveness.

The role of Mamillius, the young (seven-year-old?) son of King Leontes, is voiced by one of the actors but represented by a marionette-like (marionettesque?) figure. What we lose from the realism of having a child play the role is more than made up for by the care and attention given to moving the marionette of Mamillius around.

The minimal staging (see above) was brilliant in that respect. Although this isn't an "original practices" or "original pronunciation" production, it felt very Shakespearean. And the way the actors took on their roles at the beginning of the play contributed to that. As they're getting their costumes on, each actor tells a bit about the roles they'll be playing. This is reflected in the program: It doesn't say "Leontes . . . Benjamin Boucvalt." Instead, it says, "Actor 1 who plays Leontes . . . Benjamin Boucvalt." You might think this would prevent that willing suspension of disbelief that makes theatre possible, but, on the contrary, it enhances it.  

Stage Directions

A key moment in the play comes when the message from the Oracle at Delphi is read. Everyone has agreed that that message will be the ultimate arbiter of truth. And when the message contradicts all of King Leontes' accusations, everyone is relieved and grateful. Except Leontes. He outrageously says, "There is no truth at all i'th' oracle. / The sessions shall proceed—this is mere falsehood" (III.ii.137-38). In this production, that's where we get some thunder and lightening effects, we see the decorative, regal, ceremonial curtains fall, and the actors stagger about to simulate an earthquake (and they're better at it than the original series Star Trek actors sometimes were—I felt my own chair grow wobbly at that point). All of that powerfully underlined how insanely blasphemous Leontes has become.

The Winter's Tale also has Shakespeare's most famous stage direction: "Exit pursued by a Beare." Here, from the First Folio, is a bit of context for that exit:

And here's a bit of context for the context. The character speaking is Antigonus, advisor to King Leontes. Against his will, he has been persuaded to take Perdita, Leontes' newborn daughter, and to abandon her in "some remote and desert place" (II.iii.174). The other option is to throw it on the fire. Abandoning it where "chance may nurse or end it" (II.iii.181) might be considered more merciful than immediate death, so Antigonus takes an oath to obey Leontes' order.

When Antignous arrives at the remote place, he places the child where it might conceivably be found, and he leaves money and letters that might be used by any finder of the foundling. But, in the meanwhile, a storm has been brewing—and it's such a storm that the ship he was going to sail away on is smashed to bits. Furthermore, an angry, hungry bear is approaching. That's the origin of the reasonable exit Antigonus makes. 

In most productions I've seen, Antigonus' motivation for exiting is that he is being pursued by a bear. But the GRSF did something more meaningful and more significant than that. Instead of exiting because of mere fear, Christopher Gerson's Antigonus exits sacrificially luring the bear away from the abandoned Perdita. When he says "This is the chase," he's not just making a reference to his plight being like an animal being hunted. Instead, he's calling the bear's attention that a larger, possibly-tastier morsel is available. In short, he's saying, "Don't eat the baby! Eat me instead!"

I'm very fond of that choice. It changes the questionable, borderline-ignoble behavior of Antigonus into something that, at the last, continues to give the child the greatest chance of survival (while still allowing Antigonus to keep his vow).

To Conclude

There are far too many brilliant moments in this production to be able to address in detail. But they all add up to a truly astonishing play. Go. Go now. Go often. And enjoy!

Links: The Great River Shakespeare Festival.

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Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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