The Winter's Tale
Sunday, Aug. 9 at 7:30 p.m., online, free (reservations required)
Fans of Riverside Theatre’s annual Free Summer Shakespeare productions can look forward to a ray of light in the dark of this year’s tumult. Like most theaters, Riverside has temporarily shuttered in person performances in the interest of public safety. This necessary decision prevents us from gathering in Lower City Park’s Festival Stage this summer to take in the Bard under the stars.
However, Artistic Director Adam Knight is unwilling to allow this tradition to “exit, pursued by a bear,” as it were. The company is mounting a live online Zoom reading of The Winter’s Tale this Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. Just as the past few summers, this performance will be free to the public, though online “tickets” must be reserved in advance.
The Winter’s Tale is considered one of Shakespeare’s more complex scripts: a tragicomic story of King Leontes, who believes his wife, Hermione (played by Riverside veteran Katy Hahn), is unfaithful. He condemns her to prison and sends their infant daughter into exile and certain doom. As is common in Shakespearean tales, what was lost is later found. Justice and love triumph, after many twists and turns.
The large cast is a powerhouse lineup of local and non-local artists, combining new faces and Riverside alums.
“Riverside had a dream cast lined up for this difficult play,” Knight expressed, “and then the pandemic hit. The idea of never sharing this story — a story that felt right in this moment — was heartbreaking. … In the short term, we’re pivoting in the name of safety. But our long-term plans are more ambitious than ever.”
Written late in the playwright’s career, The Winter’s Tale shares many similar themes and devices with his other works, and weaves an intricate tale of jealousy, exile, heartbreak, heroism and love.
Hahn, tying the script’s relevance to our current tumultuous times, aptly describes Leontes as “a temperamental leader who makes big decisions based on how he’s feeling rather than the actual facts.”
Riverside newcomer Mary Denmead, who is playing Paulina, enjoys the way women are presented in the script.
“[The female characters are] so strong,” Denmead said. “The integrity they all maintain, even as the men around them dismiss them, accuse them, betray them — they keep their grace and are willing to stand up for themselves and the truth.”
The company is eager to, as Knight describes, “focus on the language and the characters.”
“Shakespeare does so much of the work for us,” Knight said, “in terms of setting up the world and the stakes. Zoom is now our Globe.”
Hahn advises audience members to lean into the language. “Trust yourself,” she said. “You’ll understand more than you might expect! Hearing a Shakespeare play out loud from professional actors is completely different than reading it silently to yourself in high school English class.”
“Even if the words feel ‘foreign’ at first, revel in the music of this language,” Denmead added. “Settle into the rhythms. Then read some Shakespeare out loud to yourself! It makes you breathe deeply and asks for your whole body to be involved. Seeing Shakespeare performed live (even on Zoom) is what it’s all about! These plays were meant to be heard out loud, with an audience, in community.”
Audience members will need to reserve tickets at Riverside’s website and log in to Zoom on Sunday night. The platform provides a meeting code, which will be made available via email. Once logged in, viewers are advised to turn off the video function and mute their own microphone to optimize the sound and video of the performers. Further details will be provided ahead of the performance.
“[The audience and actors] are right there in your face, head on, the whole time!” Denmead said of the intimacy of performing via Zoom.
Knight stresses the ongoing planning for future productions moving forward. “This free reading is a platform to share Shakespeare’s rich language with our community, and to give our artists an opportunity to inhabit [the world of the play]. And then Riverside is committed to producing two full productions next year … Next summer: six weeks, two plays, all free. Shakespeare belongs to us all!”