Conor McShane is a Chicago-based playwright, actor, and musician. A native of Michigan, Conor's plays have been produced by numerous companies throughout his home state, including Tipping Point Theatre, Fancy Pants Theater, Western Michigan University, and at the Renegade Theatre Festival. Since relocating to Chicago, his short plays have been produced by Dandelion Theatre (The Coat Check, The Hot Dog Stand), Thorpedo Productions (Love in 90 Minutes), and at the Twelve Ways to Play one-act festival. Most recently, his full-length play The Letter G was presented as a staged reading by Coffee & Whiskey Productions. He lives with his partner and closest collaborator, Leslie Hull, and a temperamental cat named Cheena.
Will Allan (Clown) with Amanda Drinkall Mopsa), Xavier Bleuel (Florizel), Chloe Baldwin (Perdita), Cher Alvarez (Nell), Martin Zebari (Shepherd), Susaan Jamshidi (Dorcas) and Christopher Sheard (Shepherd) | Photo Credit: Liz Lauren
By Conor McShane
The works of William Shakespeare are woven so heavily into the fabric of English-speaking culture that even if you’d never seen or read one, you’re likely familiar with them in one way or another. But if you still need a primer on the author’s favorite tropes and could only choose one play from which to learn, you could do worse than THE WINTER’S TALE, one of his later “Romantic” plays that contains so many of what we now call Shakespearean conventions that it scans almost like a greatest hits collection, or maybe even a bit of self-parody. This feeling is heightened while watching the Goodman Theatre’s current fleet-footed production, directed by artistic director and Chicago theater maestro Robert Falls. Coming in at a little over two hours, each of its two acts feels like a full Shakespeare play in miniature.
I have to confess, I wasn’t all that familiar with THE WINTER’S TALE before seeing this production (question my theatre bona-fides if you must, but it’s true), so I don’t really have an original frame of reference to know how much the text has been altered. But I do know that the play is a bit of an outlier in Shakespeare’s canon, not strictly a tragedy or a comedy, but a sometimes awkward combination of both. Act I contains the entire arc of a Shakespearean tragedy and all that entails: there’s the powerful central figure with a tragic flaw, King Leontes of Sicilia (Dan Donohue), whose all-consuming paranoia that his wife Hermione (Kate Fry) is having an affair with his longtime friend King Polixenes of Bohemia (Nathan Hosner) ends up bringing his life crashing down around him when he refuses to believe the truth under any circumstances.
Where most tragedies would lower the curtain and bring the actors out for bows, THE WINTER’S TALE is only halfway done. After a brief, jaw-dropping transition, Act II takes us to Bohemia, giving us a condensed Shakespearean comedy. Set sixteen years after Act I, as is helpfully explained by Time itself (looking cheekily like The Bard), it once again contains all the requisite elements: a pair of young lovers, Perdita (Chloe Baldwin), Leontes’ daughter who was exiled at birth, and Florizel (Xavier Bleuel), Prince of Bohemia; a suspicious Polixenes and his advisor Camillo (Henry Godinez), wearing disguises to spy on them; a plot complication that drives the young lovers apart until the typical happy ending where characters are reunited and all is forgiven.
THE WINTER’S TALE is known to be one of Shakespeare’s trickier plays because its hard left turn from tragedy to comedy is unavoidably jarring. Rather than try and make the two halves cohere, Falls leans into the disparity in pretty much every aspect. Where Walt Spangler’s set in Act I is all high, gleaming windows suggesting a sleek modern penthouse and Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes are mostly dark suits and formal gowns, Act II is a patchwork fantasia of garish colors that brings to mind Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. The acting, too, takes a noticeable turn, the cast playing up the broadness of the second half with Vaudevillian physical comedy and freewheeling dance numbers.
As the play came to a close, I couldn’t help but wonder, with the pivot to comedy and the happy resolution that entails, whether Leontes really deserves the forgiveness he seems to get. Despite sixteen years of repentance, his jealousy and inability to see past his myopic point of view led to real and lasting harm, and it definitely feels strange from a modern perspective to see his sins largely washed away. If the play has relevance to our current world, it could be in the way that a powerful man’s opinion, even in the absence of any evidence, is always favored over a woman’s regardless of who is hurt in the process. The production doesn’t lean too heavily on this idea, but it’s hard not to think about it when watching the happy reunion at the play’s conclusion. Leontes may have mostly gotten what he wanted, but the scars still linger: the final image is a haunting reminder that underneath the comic resolution, his folly still had tragic consequences.
Falls’s production is a bit messy and unwieldy, with possibly a few too many ideas to make them all hang together in a satisfying way. As gorgeous as they often are to look at, the stage pictures don’t always seem motivated by the text, which leads to a bit of cognitive dissonance. But it’s undoubtedly a fascinating take on one of Shakespeare’s stranger works, and I’d take messy and ambitious over safe and predictable any day.
“The Winter’s Tale” runs through June 9th. More info at goodmantheatre.org.