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The Groundling Theatre Company’s first production, staged in a 100-seat, storefront theatre in Toronto, is a welcome opportunity to get the general Shakespeare experience outside of Stratford.

Michael Cooper

3 out of 4 stars

Title
The Winter’s Tale
Written by
William Shakepeare
Directed by
Graham Abbey
Actors
Tom McCamus, Lucy Peacock, Brent Carver, Sarena Parmar
Company
Groundling Theatre Company
Venue
Coal Mine Theatre
City
Toronto

Call it Stratford-upon-the-Danforth.

In a 100-seat, storefront theatre in Toronto's east end, The Winter's Tale can currently be found starring actors very familiar to regular visitors to the Stratford Festival: Tom McCamus, surprisingly sensitive as the jealous king Leontes; Michelle Giroux, both sensual and sharp as his wife Hermione; Lucy Peacock, playing Hermione's number-one defender, growling and clawing her way across a billiard-table-sized stage like an animal too big for her cage.

Tony-winner Brent Carver's in the cast, too – playing the kind Antigonus in the first tragic first half of Shakespeare's late romance set in sombre Sicilia, the thief Autolycus in the comic second half set in Bohemia.

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This is the first production of the Groundling Theatre Company, founded by the playful and vivid Stratford actor Graham Abbey to "employ the top classical actors, directors and designers across the country in an effort to produce world-class Shakespeare here in Toronto."

Well, Abbey has certainly enticed the top classical actors – Patrick Galligan, Roy Lewis and Robert Persichini are all aboard as well – and the minimal set is by Siminovitch-nominated designer Steve Lucas. It is, however, at the very least premature to call Abbey one of the country's top classical directors. This production is his directorial debut.

Abbey has rejigged Shakespeare's text so The Winter's Tale begins unexpectedly. We discover Leontes watching a home video of his wife, Hermione, and his son, Mamillus (13-year-old Callum McAlister, charming). Hermione goads her son, who is sitting on her lap, into telling a story. "A sad tale's best for winter," says the boy.

This comes from an early scene in Shakespeare's play, but Leontes is watching it unspool from a scene near the end of the play, 16 years after his fit of jealousy has led to the death of both wife and son. "Kill'd! She I kill'd! I did so," he says ruefully, resignedly to Paulina (Peacock). And so, The Winter's Tale begins where it normally ends – with Leontes repentant and forgiveness in the air.

This initial flourish over, the dramatic benefits of which are unclear, Abbey's returns to the usual start – and his show turns into an actor's production, a straightforward take that illuminates the play in no new way, notable only for the proximity of the performers.

It is at its most compelling in Sicilia. Giroux is a flirtatious enough Hermione, Galligan a slick enough Polixenes, that Leonte's sudden certainty that his wife is pregnant with his best friend's son does not seem as obviously off-base as usual.

But it's Carver's performances that really intrigue in extreme close-up, however. He is sensitive, but servile as Antigonus – charged by Leontes to take his newborn daughter to a foreign land and abandon her. And when he lands on the shores of Bohemia with the baby, he does not exit pursued by a bear – as the famous stage direction goes – but, through astonishing paroxysms, seems to actually seems to turn into a bear. (It's no more unlikely a transformation than the play's usual ones.)

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As the singing-and-dancing con man Autolycus, Carver seems even more like an alien shape-shifter than usual (anyone else remember Odo from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine?). His often-whispered performance is so personal you might blush. He seems to speak in haikus in the first half, beat poetry in the second. In short, his is a weird performance, which distinguishes it from the safe, expected and overly likeable work found elsewhere.

As the lovers in the second half, Sarena Parmar is a sweet Perdita and Charlie Gallant, late of the Shaw Festival, an energetic lover. Lewis is stirring as a true friend to kings, in both Sicilia and Bohemia.

I can't for the life of me understand why these actors would want to do what they do from April to October in Stratford in a storefront in the winter in roughly the same style. In the absence of Stratford Festival touring in the flesh, however, it is a welcome opportunity to get the general gist outside of Stratford – in 3-D rather than HD.

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