Summer theater is up and running in KC, and one of the signature events in the hottest time of the year is the annual Heart of America Shakespeare Festival.
This year the festival presents a title new to its repertoire: “The Winter’s Tale,” which eggheads consider one of the Bard’s “problem” plays because he had the audacity to mix heavy drama with comedy and tack on a happy ending. Personally, I don’t see why that’s a problem.
Some Shakespeare titles — “Romeo and Juliet,” “Julius Caesar,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — sell themselves because they’re so familiar that people often think they know the plays even if they don’t. “The Winter’s Tale” isn’t one of those. It has not been revived on Broadway since 1946. The most recent theatrical film version seems to have been in 1967. The most recent TV version was in 1999.
Your humble theater critic, by sheer chance, caught a fine production of it years ago at the Denver Center Theatre Company. So there is no question that it can grip an audience and seize your imagination.
Because this play hasn’t been staged in Kansas City in who-knows-how-long, we turned to director Sidonie Garrett, the festival’s executive director, to give us five good reasons to check out “The Winter’s Tale.”
Here are her answers, which have been edited for space and clarity.
1. “The Winter’s Tale” is produced infrequently.
“Whether you’re a festival veteran or a first-time patron, you’re in for a festival first this summer. The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival’s 22nd season marks the first time the festival has produced ‘The Winter’s Tale’ in Southmoreland Park.”
Translation: Here’s a chance to broaden your horizons.
2. It’s a romance with a capital R.
“Shakespeare wrote ‘The Winter’s Tale’ toward the end of his writing career between 1609 and 1611, which was a period when scholars started to notice a change in his writing. With three acts of tragedy, two of comedy and a miraculous ending, is it a tragedy? A comedy? A tragi-comedy? Or something else entirely? Many have agreed to call it a Late Romance.”
Translation: Don’t worry about labeling it. Just go with it.
3. It shares some elements with classic fairy tales.
“Though it’s not ‘Cinderella’ or ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ the play does have elements of our favorite fairy tales. Fairy tales often are set in imaginary or faraway places.
“The second half of the play has us traveling to Bohemia, which in the play is an island. (Bohemia was a land-locked European country.) There is a baby left in the wilds at the mercy of the elements. And time itself is a character in the story. Magic and fantasy are often present in fairy tales, and some say magic is at play in ‘The Winter’s Tale.’”
Translation: Open your mind and surrender to the play’s alternative realities.
4. “The Winter’s Tale” retells an older story.
“Shakespeare enjoyed creating his own stories but also had a knack for adapting well-known stories of the time. Many of his plots come from Greek mythology, popular Elizabethan literature, or Elizabethan and Jacobean history.
“Shakespeare’s play closely follows the plot of Robert Greene’s 1588 novel ‘Pandosto: The Triumph of Time,’ borrowing much of the action from the first half of the novel. Shakespeare changed the characters’ names but also made the story theatrical by adding the Clown and the song-selling, disguise-wearing, pick-pocketing Autolycus.”
Translation: Shakespeare never heard of copyright law.
5. This production features live music.
“For the first time in 15 years, the festival will feature live musicians on stage. Composer Greg Mackender will lead the band and play a variety of instruments along with violinist Laurel Morgan and cellist Sascha Groschang. Mackender will provide a musical soundscape to underscore particular moments (some of them magical), transition the story between scenes and provide music for two dances as well as musical moments specified in the script.
“In addition, actor Matt Rapport will play mandolin and sing with cast members Mary Glen Fredrick, Maya Jackson, MaKenna Lockhart and Lysle Hartnett. Oh, and the production will feature a bear and a flock of sheep.”
Translation: Real live musicians will be interacting with real live actors to perform for a real live audience.
Performances begin Tuesday and continue through July 6. Southmoreland Park is between Oak and Warwick just west of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Gates open at 6 p.m., the show starts at 8. The festival, as always, will be free, but donations will be requested.
For more information call 816-531-7728 or go to www.kcshakes.org.