Is The Winter’s Tale one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”? I’ve never thought so. Jealousy pushed to its maddening limits? A heart-splitting and magical final scene of generosity and redemption? Some of the lushest, most beautiful, love poetry this side of Keats? No problem for me. And some of the play’s many treasures are on vivid display in the Optimist Theatre’s new production, playing this month at Kadish Park.
It starts as tragedy--as relentless and single-minded as Shakespeare ever concocted. Leontes is convinced of his wife Hermione’s infidelity with his best friend, and will listen to no one—not even Apollo’s oracle—who contradicts him. The tragic results send him on a 16-year journey of remorse and piety. And after that time, we meet up with various characters in the story in a rustic kingdom far far away.
That’s enough plot for now—there are interesting surprises ahead. But the nature and quality of the Optimist production is no surprise. It’s bare-bones, but intelligent and solid in the fundamentals. Director ML Cogar does what she can with the park’s postage-stamp stage and the hillside space’s unwieldy logistics. And she succeeds primarily by helping generate some fine performances. Tom Reed plays the jealous Leontes with steely intensity, which yields some emotional riches in the play’s final moments. As his suspected friend, Polixenes, Mark Corkins captures the warmth of their lifelong relationship, but also the character's hot-blooded temper. Mary Kababik is an appropriately imperial Paulina. Emmitt Morgans handles the important role of Camillo with an effortless command of the language. And Brian Miracle brings a little Ed Grimley and a little Ray Bolger in his very physical part of the wide-eyed country yokel.
But two actors stand out in this strong ensemble. As Perdita, Allie Babich embodies the generous, pastoral spirit of the play, handling her part’s beautiful poetry with conversational ease. And Beth Mulkerron makes the production a kind of showcase for her diverse talents, playing two of the play’s essential (and very different) roles with command. As Hermione, she is radiant without being cloying, which is essential to the play’s sometimes oversentimentalized finale. And she takes a break from her turn as The Good Wife to play the conniving and raffish Autolycus with lots of appealing physical shtick. She’s the at the top of a long list of reasons to see this production of one of Shakespeare’s unsung masterpieces.