“Winter” is Coming at Cincinnati Shakespeare!

Review by Willie Caldwell of A Winter’s Tale: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

Continuing its 25th season, Cincinnati Shakespeare takes on A Winter’s Tale full force!

Often described as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, A Winter’s Tale feels like two plays in one. Part of the first folio, it is easy to see elements of Shakespeare’s later more predominant works woven throughout A Winter’s Tale. Part tragedy, part comedy, and part romance play, A Winter’s Tale is a rollercoaster of emotions, characters, and storylines.

Act I unfolds as a dark, psychological drama about jealousy, the abuse of power, and toxic masculinity. At the onset, we learn that King Leontes suspects his wife Hermine of having an affair with his longtime friend King Polixenes. After a series of baseless accusations, King Leontes orders Camillo, a Sicilian Lord, to poison Polixenes who instead flees to his home country of Bohemia. Enraged at Polixenes’ escape, Leontes resorts to publicly accuse his wife of having an extramarital affair and throws her in the dungeons. To make matters worse, Hemione gives birth to a child that is now deemed illegitimate. 

Searching for answers, King Leontes seeks out the Oracle to ascertain the truth about Hermione and her newborn daughter.The Oracle informs the King that Hermione and Polixenes are innocent and the newborn infant is indeed his child. Refusing to believe the Oracle, Leontes ignores the truth, leading to dire consequences. As the events of Act I draw to a close, we learn that Leontes’ only son and heir, Mamillius, has died of a wasting sickness and Hermione has died of a broken heart leaving Leontes bitter, broken, and alone. 

If it all sounds a bit convoluted, that is because it is, but Act I is where Cincy Shakes production truly shines. Brent Vimtrup as Leontes delivers a powerful performance as the tyrant king who is driven mad by jealousy. Vimtrup is beautifully balanced by Kelly Mengelkoch as the broken and defeated Hermione. The public accusation scenes are particularly gut-wrenching and hard to watch while simultaneously being impossible to turn away from. Leslie Brott absolutely commands the stage as the noblewoman Paulina who sets the events in motion that lead to the second act. Act I is visceral, dark, and eerily similar to the real-life themes playing out in our current political landscape in the #MeToo era.

In contrast, Act II feels like a completely different play. Sixteen years have passed and the baby is now a full-grown woman by the name of Perdita. We are introduced to the warm and colorful kingdom of Bohemia, which, true to its name, includes all the singing, dancing, and daisy chains one could hope for. Perdita is in love with Florizel who happens to be Polixenes’ only son and heir. Act II focuses on the budding relationship between the two lovers and throws in a myriad of subplots and additional characters ultimately leading to the discovery that Perdita is the long-lost daughter of King Leontes who has been in mourning for the past 16 years. 

Where Act I represents winter, Act II gives the illusion of winter melting into spring. Billy Chace stands out in the role of Autolycus, a bumbling roguish peddler and pickpocket. Our lovers, played by Courtney Lucien and Crystian Wiltshire, swoon deeply for one another with all the innocence of young requited love. The ensemble is rounded out by a delightful trio of minstrels playing a guitar, mandolin, and fiddle live on stage. While the pacing of the second act is quicker, there is quite a bit of ground to cover and a number of loose ends to tie up which at times can be a bit confusing for the audience. This has more to do with Shakespeare’s early writing than Cincy Shakes’ adaptation. Despite being one of the Bard’s “problem plays,” The production ends on a high note reminding theater goers that after winter, spring must come.

Cincy Shakes is clearly settling into their new home and making beautiful use of the recently constructed Otto M. Budig Theatre. The production is directed by Cincinnati native, Christopher Luscombe, who works as an associate artist for the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company.  Overall, the production design is sleek and simple. Towering columns give way to connecting arches which feel hard as stone in Act I but are made to feel like trees swaying gently in the breeze during Act II. Shannon Moore’s scenic design does a terrific job of balancing Act I and Act II with the help of colorful textures, gobos, and lighting design by S. Watson. 

A Winter’s Tale runs March 1-23. Tickets can be purchased online by visiting www.cincyshakes.com or by calling the box office at 513-381-2273.