Opening nights on Shakespeare Hill are becoming a real treat. Last season saw the commemoration of Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s fortieth season of free outdoor theater. On Thursday, the 41st season kicked off with a ribbon cutting on the company’s brand-new stage, paid for by an aggressive community-supported fundraising drive.
Company founder and artistic director Saul Elkin, surrounded by members of the company’s board and its managing director, Lisa Ludwig, officially broke the seal with great pride and joy, before introducing a new production of “The Winter’s Tale.” The lesser-known play was the company’s very first production, back in 1976. This is its fourth production on the Hill.
These milestones are important to an institution like Shakespeare in Delaware Park, which has evolved over four decades without ever selling a ticket. It makes sense that Elkin would christen this upgraded stage with a play that reflects on the change of seasons and the passage of time.
Still, “The Winter’s Tale” is an odd play. It has long been argued whether it is primarily a romance, comedy or tragedy. It is all three of these things, and yet never quite at the same time. If The Bard were alive and writing today, he’d have written this as a dramedy, where contrasting emotions co-exist in the same scene. But that would be too recognizable, the moral not being very profound. That confusion you feel at the top of act two is normal, though; just go with it.
The first half of the evening are dramatic and foreboding, telling the story of a tyrannical king who wrongly accuses and imprisons his pregnant wife for allegedly having an affair with his childhood best friend, another king, who he attempts to have killed as well. Kids and their romance! The second half takes a much lighter turn, and includes, among other things, a clown, a goofy shepherd, a country ho-down and some old-fashioned magic—a leisurely walk after a heavy dinner.
Elkin gives his cast ample room to nibble, bite, chew and spit out this beautiful new stage, which comes with wider sightlines and a more dynamic skeleton (which can adjust to suit each production). David Dwyer’s set, appropriately dressed but uninspiring, eats up Emma Schimminger’s luscious lights; Tom Makar’s sound design and original music adds even more dimension, with plenty of localized cues that could be mistaken for the real thing. This was a wise, much-needed investment, and the creative team is already reaping its many benefits. Ken Shaw’s costumes are to die for.
Matt Witten leads an impressive cast as the contemptuous King Leontes, a man who could wipe the world away with one hand swish. Witten is utterly juicy in this role, enunciating with contempt, sneering with jealous rage. By the time we meet Leontes, his bitter ways have caught up with him. Even his trusted aide, Camillo, made satisfyingly human by Tom Loughlin, and other advisors are done with the guy. Jenn Stafford plays the pregnant Hermione with her signature aloof swagger at first, but eventually sheds that veneer to show an exhausted, bruised shell of a woman.
But it is Lisa Vitrano, as Paulina the fierce lady-in-waiting with a killer handbag, who steals much of this melodramatic first act. Vitrano is at her very best here. Without much effort, she Mother Roses her way into a conversation, wrings its participants out like a soiled rag, and saunters off as casually as one swirls a martini pick. One triumphant exit earned spontaneous applause, followed by longing.
The second half’s players are decidedly funnier, though no less goofy. Returning to the Hill this season is Jordan Louis Fischer, whose debut last year in the all-male “Twelfth Night” stole the show; here he our charming, hapless clown, the son of an equally adolescent shepherd, played by the reliable Tim Joyce. These two make some great laughs together, disguising a great deal of detail in the process. So does Jordan Levin, as the free-spirit Autolycus, who connives his way through a pastoral Bohemian landscape and adds a Puck-like physicality to the proceedings. Levin’s singing voice is in top shape on Makar’s original songs, which evoke a folky “Pippin” vibe.
The details of these characters’ actions seem less important in this one; they surely matter, but they are mere props for a larger rumination on something of which we often need reminding: that prologues exist only in the past; that second acts do, indeed, come to those who are patient; and that even long winters turn to blissful springs.
“The Winter’s Tale,” by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare in Delaware Park, Shakespeare Hill, behind the Rose Garden, Buffalo
Runs through July 17, Tues. through Sun. at 7:30 p.m.
Free admission but donations welcome.