‘The Winter’s Tale,’ a demonstration of ferocious, 
uninhibited power

Nearly 300 years after Shakespeare’s death, the English critic F.S. Boas first described the distinctively modern nature of Shakespeare’s later plays. They are set, he wrote, “in civilizations whose society is ripe unto rottenness.” They pose “intricate cases of conscience [that] demand a solution by unprecedented methods.” And at the end, they leave us “excited, fascinated, perplexed, for the issues raised preclude a completely satisfactory outcome.”

These modern traits didn’t fit into classic pigeonholes — but they did describe the complex 19th-century dramas of such writers as Henrik Ibsen. And since those plays had come to be known as “problem plays,” Boas found it momentarily convenient to slap the same label on such plays as “Hamlet,” “Measure for Measure” and others — including “The Winter’s Tale.”

It was a rotten label then — misleading, confusing and inept. Better to just to think of these plays as the culmination of a great career, as plays that bring the art of drama to new, previously unimagined heights — especially when they’re produced with the kind of ferocious, uninhibited power brought to bear by Director Amy Attaway’s cast in this summer’s Kentucky Shakespeare production of “The Winter’s Tale.”

This is a tale driven by the raging jealousy of Leontes, King of Sicilia. Like an infatuation, this jealousy is irrational and uncontrollable — and Dathan Hooper unleashes its implacable power in a magnificent performance that is chilling and convincing — and made even more so by his deeply affectionate scenes with his cheerful, charming son, Mamillius (Julian Allen). Shakespeare surrounds Leontes with perhaps the most-noble, courageous courtiers he ever created (and Donna Lawrence-Downs garbs both royals and rustics in perfect outfits). Up until this bout of jealousy, it seems, Leontes has been a model leader — and throughout the first half of the play, his retainers bravely refuse to accept his accusation that Queen Hermione (Maggie Lou Rader) has been unfaithful with Leontes’ friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Gregory Maupin).

The stalwart integrity of characters like Camillo (Jeremy Sapp), whose loyalty to his king doesn’t extend to homicide; Antigonus (Kyle Ware) is inspiring in its idealism. And in the role of Paulina, Abigail Bailey Maupin brings a risky, fiery passion to her defense of the Queen and her newborn princess — whom Leontes believes is the tainted fruit of adultery.

And in the climactic scenes of the act, where Hermione comes front and center to offer her defense against Leontes’ indictment, and Paulina first rails against  the king (and then reconciles with him in the shattering aftermath), Rader and Maupin make a strong case for these two women as being among the most formidable ever to flow from Shakespeare’s quill.

After the relentless drama of the first act (apart from a bit of innocent flirting in the early scenes, there are no moments of comic relief), Antigonus arrives on the shores of Bohemia on a mission to abandon the disowned infant. And all the built-up tension explodes in a comic episode (involving a bear) that plunges us rapidly into a different world.

Sixteen years after the tragic events in Sicilia, we find ourselves in the fantasia, bucolic land of Bohemia where Polixenes and Camillo have taken refuge from Leontes’ fury. And here Shakespeare unleashes the generational, class and gender subversions (complete with concealed identities) that shape so many of his giddiest comedies. Polixenes’ son, Prince Florizel (Tony Milder), is smitten by Perdita (Arielle Leverett), who was discovered, and adopted some 16 years earlier, by a rustic Shepherd (John Huffman), who has raised her alongside his son, a Clown (Zachary Burrell). Here in a land of dance (choreography by Bar Cullen), and song, where even the most reprobate criminals are charming, indeed (witness the amoral, golden-voiced cutpurse, Autolycus, played with gleeful abandon by Neill Robertson), we know that even the most stern judgments are likely to be overturned.

And in the end, this convincing production (with evocative sound, sets and lighting from Laura Ellis, Paul Owen and Casey Clark) yields an outcome that, if it defies the satisfactions of earthly logic, delivers magic aplenty. •

‘The Winter’s Tale’
Through July 23
C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheatre
Central Park
1340 S. Fourth St., 574-9900

There is a lot of Shakespeare-related theater around town this summer, including an array of performances by area companies at the Park through mid-August.

The Alley Theater is in on the act as well, with a revival of Tom Stoppard’s absurdist masterpiece “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” — which, hard as it is to believe, originated more than a half-century ago.

Any production of this oblique, off-center riff on “Hamlet” is worth seeing, if only because of Stoppard’s intellectual cheek, and his rich flow of words and ideas. This is a play where every line is freighted with ironic ambiguities that require the title characters (played here by Riker Hill and Stephen J. Koller), and the rest of the ensemble, to play against one another with the same rigorous clarity of purpose a baroque ensemble brings to each note in a Bach fugue.

There’s some of that here. Joey Arena is the leader of the band of players whose play-within-a-play is the pivot point in Hamlet. He’s a master of this kind of comedy. And his troupe of tragedians revel confidently in the theatrical extremes called forth by single-minded focus on the theater of “love, blood and rhetoric.” But under Director J. Gregory Sanders, Hill and Koller relied on a casual naturalism that — for me, anyway — left a lot of comic juice un-squeezed.

But that’s a question open to debate. In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet advises his troupe of players that they should “overstep not the modesty of nature,” because theatrical excess, “though it make the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve.” Perhaps I was simply in an injudicious mood!

You can judge for yourself. •

‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’
Through July 9
Alley Theater
633 W. Main St., 822-5598.