Well, as I said to two friends Friday night as we exited Southmoreland Park, I’ve never been a big fan of William Shakespeare’s science-fiction plays.
We had just watched “The Winter’s Tale,” a well-acted, sumptuously costumed production from the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival that remains faithful to a piece that takes us from stark tragedy to goofy comedy and ultimately a mystical resurrection.
Director Sidonie Garrett, as she usually does, divides the play into two acts with one intermission. Shakespeare devotes the first half to the sudden mental deterioration of King Leontes (Bruce Roach) and the tragic events that ensue.
The Bard then violently shifts gears and provides a pastoral comedy — which in this production spills over into slapstick — filled with “rustic” characters, a lovable rogue, young lovers and people in funky disguises.
The final section shifts gears yet again as the tormented Leontes is redeemed, two weddings are planned and a supernatural reanimation provides a happy ending.
There’s no way to fault the performances in this production.
Perhaps most impressive is Roach, who as Leontes must negotiate a sudden descent into paranoia and vindictiveness, spew forth a series of destructive decisions, and then just as suddenly return to sanity and find humility. There’s plenty of irrational behavior in Shakespeare’s plays, but Leontes is a special case. Roach finesses the role in a way that gives the production its emotional grounding.
Garrett has always handled dark material well, and her direction of the “tragic” pre-intermission storyline is impressive. She’s less comfortable with comedy, and much of the second act’s humor seems forced. At times the physical comedy takes on the quality of a three-ring circus.
Roach and many of his fellow players represent the best Shakespearean actors in Kansas City. John Rensenhouse as King Polixenes, Leontes’ boyhood friend, brings effortless authority to the stage. Cinnamon Schultz is a marvelous model of economy as the virtuous Hermione, queen to Leontes.
Mark Robbins delivers an elegant performance as the brainy and compassionate Camillo. Jan Rogge chalks up one of her best festival performances as Paulina, who is instrumental in saving Leontes’ unwanted infant daughter. And Robert Gibby Brand, as usual, provides great clarity and customary class as Antigonus.
The comic section is dominated by expansive performances from Scott Cordes as the Shepherd and Matt Rapport as Autolycus, a happy pickpocket and dissembler. Cordes and Rapport by now have become specialists as Shakespearean comedians, and they know how to deliver laughs. Rapport, armed with a mandolin, sings songs taken directly from the script to nice arrangements by Greg Mackender, who performs live on various instruments with violinist Laurel Morgan and cellist Sascha Groschang.
As Clown (the Shepherd’s son), Andy Perkins is a bit too over-the-top. Emily Peterson is radiant as Perdita, the country lass who turns out to have royal blood. As her suitor, the prince Florizel, Daniel Fredrick exhibits an open-faced earnestness.
Some of the smaller performances stand out, particularly Nathan Bovos as a sympathetic jailer and Taylor St. John as a lord in Leontes’ court.
Mary Traylor’s costumes, a mix of historical styles that sometimes suggest the Edwardian era, are their most vivid in the wacky patchwork outfits she provides for the pastoral sequence. Mackender’s music nicely informs the action without becoming intrusive.
Kudos to Garrett and the festival for tackling a rarely staged play that poses big challenges and certain insoluble problems. You can see some impressive work in this production.
To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival production of “The Winter’s Tale” runs through July 6 at Southmoreland Park. Call 816-531-7728 or go to www.kcshakes.org.