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The Winter’s Tale: A rewarding way to pass a summer’s night

3 out of 4 stars

There are, as far as I'm aware, no bears in Toronto's High Park. Or rather, there weren't any until June 30, when Canadian Stage opened its fine new Dream in High Park production of The Winter's Tale.

In 29 seasons, this is the first time the company's summer Shakespeare program has presented the playwright's late-period romance, famous for a brief appearance by a man-eating bear. Director Estelle Shook makes up for that oversight by giving us, not one, but two ursine cameos. The early scenes of the play, in the court of Sicilia, are acted around a white bearskin rug, before the action switches to that seacoast in Bohemia where his living cousin (played by a fur-clad Thomas Olajide) mauls the unlucky Sicilian lord Antigonus.

I'm making a big deal about the bear because, for many, The Winter's Tale is at best vaguely known as that play involving one – as well as a living statue and a Bohemian seacoast, the latter proving that Shakespeare was geographically challenged. I hadn't seen a production of it for years until last summer's revival at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where it proved a much richer work than I'd realized.

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But it can also be disconcerting for audiences used to the familiar plots of that handful of Shakespeare comedies – As You Like It, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night's Dream et al. – usually offered for outdoor consumption. The play's first half, in which Leontes (David Jansen), the king of Sicilia, suddenly becomes convinced that his blameless, pregnant wife Hermione (Kelly McIntosh) has committed adultery with his best friend, the Bohemian king Polixenes (Sanjay Talwar), is pure tragedy. As critic Harold Bloom has pointed out, Leontes is "an Othello who is his own Iago" and his insane, murderous jealousy rivals that of the Moor.

Shook stages Leontes's meltdown in a stark fashion, punctuated by John Millard's spare strings-and-percussion score, with Jansen giving a brooding, intense performance. You might begin to wonder why this play is called a romance – but wait for it. The second part, set in a pastoral Bohemia 16 years later, serves up the young lovers, funny rustics and bawdy ballads you expect from al fresco Shakespeare.

It's here that we find Perdita (Jasmine Chen), Leontes's disowned and abandoned child, who has been raised by shepherds and fallen in love with Florizel (Thomas Olajide), Polixenes's son. It's also where we meet one of Shakespeare's classic comic rogues, that "snapper-up of unconsidered trifles," the petty thief Autolycus (John Blackwood).

Shook, making her Canadian Stage debut, is an old hand at open-air performance, having run B.C.'s Caravan Farm Theatre for a dozen years. Her experience is evident in her clean, economical direction and her emphasis on clarity of delivery. Her 12-member cast is uniformly good and, in the case of Jansen and a few others, outstanding. A fiery Nicole Robert burns up the stage as the outspoken Paulina, Hermione's advocate, while Jovanni Sy is subtle and sympathetic as Camillo, the would-be assassin who instead saves Polixenes.

Blackwood provides the most entertaining dual role, first playing Antigonus, Paulina's cowed husband, and then later the rascally Autolycus, conceived here as part pickpocket, part guitar-strumming old folksinger. Imagine a cheerfully crooked Pete Seeger.

There's also some amusing business from George Masswohl as Perdita's adoptive father, the old shepherd, and, especially, Sean Dixon as his woolly-headed son. Masswohl plays his character as a Scotsman and Dixon's has a broad Canadian accent, suggesting that maybe this seacoast isn't in Bohemia, but Nova Scotia.

The play moves from tragedy to comedy and finally, to mystery. By then, the sun has gone down and Jason Hand's lighting turns Denyse Karn's sparsely adorned set into an eerie chapel for the unveiling of that aforesaid statue and the final scene of reconciliation.

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It may be more challenging than what we've come to expect from the Dream in High Park. But if you're willing to follow Shakespeare's audacious genre-bending, this Winter's Tale is a rewarding way to pass a summer's night.

The Winter's Tale

  • Written by William Shakespeare
  • Directed by Estelle Shook
  • Starring John Blackwood, Jasmine Chen, David Jansen, Kelly McIntosh, Nicole Robert, Jovanni Sy, Sanjay Talwar
  • A Canadian Stage production
  • At High Park in Toronto until Sept. 4

Special to The Globe and Mail

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