Riverside Theatre restores something much missed to the community with ‘The Winter’s Tale’

Riverside Theatre Presents: The Winter’s Tale

Lower City Park Festival Stage, through July 25 -- Free

Martin Andrews in ‘The Winter’s Tale.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

Adam Knight’s smile was as bright as the sunny evening sky while we chatted for a few moments ahead of the opening night (July 15) performance of Riverside Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale on the Festival Stage in Iowa City’s Lower City Park. Knight, Riverside’s producing director and director of The Winter’s Tale, had much to smile about. Beautiful weather, a sizable crowd (with available socially distant seating for those who preferred it) and a strong production combined to make Riverside’s return to performances for in-person audiences feel truly celebratory.

For me, the most moving moment of the evening was right at the top of the play. Patrick DuLaney and Tim Budd strode onto the stage first, and it felt perfect. I first saw DuLaney perform in a Riverside Theatre summer production of The Winter’s Tale, and Budd is for all intents and purposes synonymous with Riverside Theatre. So when those two took the stage and spoke the play’s first lines, there was for me a palpable sense that something much missed was truly restored.

There wasn’t much time to enjoy the sunny feeling, however, because The Winter’s Tale turns dark in a hurry. Leontes, king of Sicilia, convinces himself that his wife, Hermione, and his best friend, Polixenes, king of Bohemia have cuckolded him and that Hermione’s unborn child is really Polixenes’.

Aaron Weiner and Jessica Link in ‘The Winter’s Tale.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

The actors in this key trio all delivered excellent performances. As Leontes, Martin Andrews allowed the madness of the king’s jealousy to flow as a slow but inexorable crescendo. Jessica Link is simply exceptional in her portrayal of Hermione, a woman unjustly accused who insists on maintaining her dignity and strength of character even as her husband sets out to destroy her. And as Polixenes, Aaron Weiner convincingly moves from befuddled and wronged friend in the early portion of the play to a father who lashes out at his son more strongly than the situation requires late in the play. This echo of Leontes’ anger from the first half of the play is, happily, not as tragically consequential, but Weiner convinces us for a moment that it could be.

Budd portrays Camillo, a man who serves both kings over the course of the play, while Crystal Marie Stewart plays Paulina, a dear and loyal friend to Hermione. Both Budd and Stewart capture the ways in which their characters courageously speak truth to power even when it puts them in grave danger. Budd’s Camillo is a man who wants to serve loyally and who is also fiercely committed to doing what is right and the actor makes the internal struggle visible externally in subtle, moving ways.

Crystal Marie Stewart and Martin Andrews in ‘The Winter’s Tale.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

DuLaney and Elijah Jones partner for the play’s most humorous moments. As Autolycus (reprising the role I first saw him play), DuLaney is a larger-than-life schemer and thief and the scene in which he bamboozles Jones in his role as the shepherd’s son — stealing not only his purse but the better part of his garb as well — is a highlight of the production. Jones also delivers some laughs when his character reports to his father that he has seen a man torn to bits by a bear (Elliott Bales plays both the man who is eaten and the father who hears the report in a deft bit of doubling).

At times, particularly in the second act, some of the actors were very difficult to hear — at least from my seat toward the back on the far house-right side, though my sense was that much of the audience was struggling to hear. The dialogue in scenes featuring Barrington Vaxter and Christina Sullivan as two young lovers who are determined to be together despite the apparent disparity in their stations was particularly difficult to suss out. Fortunately, Vaxter and Sullivan were able to communicate their characters’ love for one another via non-verbal cues. Still and all, a focus on the difficult task of projecting to the full house (even as frogs sing from the pond, engines rev along the road and birds, planes, and helicopters contribute to the soundscape from above) would strengthen the production.

Barrington Vaxter and Christina Sullivan in ‘The Winter’s Tale.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

Scenic and lighting designer S. Benjamin Farrar employed tarps and steel as the keynotes of his spare set. A change in the tarps’ color and the addition of decorative details moves the action from Sicilia to Bohemia (and from the tragedy of the first act to the comedy of the second). The centerpiece of the set, an arch of steel and tarps, reminded me of the “Guardian of Forever” of Star Trek fame — and this arch serves a not dissimilar purpose, helping the audience move through different places and times as The Winter’s Tale unfurls.

Farrar and Joe Link created a conception for the play’s famous bear that is well-worth seeing. Indeed, I wish the bear had just a moment or two more on stage so that we could fully take in their work. Costume designer Karlē J. Meyers’ work also serves the production well (though Stewart’s dress did cause her some difficulties as she moved down a ladder).

The audience rewarded the cast and crew with a partial standing ovation and much happy chatter about the performance could be heard as theatergoers left the performance area and headed home.

The Winter’s Tale continues through July 25 and is free to attend. Riverside Theatre will then present Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors on the Festival Stage, August 13-22. That production will also be free to attend.

This corrects an earlier version of this review that misattributed the design work for the bear.

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