Festival's 17th season opens Saturday with Winter's Tale in a contemporary setting
PRESCOTT – Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies are unquestionably masterpieces, but most of life’s journeys don’t end in simultaneous happily-ever-after marriages, or a pile of bodies on the floor.
That’s why The Winter’s Tale is so compelling to director Mikaela Davies.
Rather than offering a neat and unambiguous ending, the play ends with “hope in the face of grief,” the Montreal-born director and actor said in an interview during a media call Tuesday.
“I think there’s something gorgeous about the possibility of forgiveness and healing,” she added.
The Winter’s Tale opens the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival’s 17th season on Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Kinsmen Amphitheatre. It will be preceded by a pay-what-you-can preview on Friday evening.
The festival is also staging a non-Shakespearean production, Cyrano de Bergerac, in a schedule that runs until Aug. 24. The two main productions are interspersed with other offerings such as a “Shakespeare Sunday” on July 28 and three instalments of “Monday Night Live” in late July and in August.
One of Shakespeare’s later plays, Winter’s Tale inhabits a grey area between tragedy and comedy. It is the story of a false accusation of adultery that leads to tragedy; it moves from that place of darkness, through a false-identity narrative and humorous pastoral phase more typical of Shakespeare’s comedies, to reach a place of light. But the narrative also leaves behind some unresolved damage.
Returning actor Jesse Nerenberg welcomes the challenge of playing Leontes, the king whose misplaced rage sets in motion a tragic sequence of events.
Nerenberg compares his character to one of Shakespeare’s best-known tragic figures, Othello, as both men are driven by a rage that is clearly misplaced, but has tragic consequences. However, in Othello, the true villain is Iago, whose manipulations twist Othello’s perceptions.
“In the character of Leontes, there is no puppet-master,” said Nerenberg. “It’s his personal imagination that’s his own Iago.”
It’s the stuff of classic theatre, but Davies has opted to give her production of Winter’s Tale a contemporary setting, with costumes more typical of the boardroom than a mythical Sicilian court.
It’s her firm conviction that the play “has to speak to the now.”
In particular, she has a keen sense of directorial accountability to address the treatment of women in this narrative, rather than explain away the problematic parts as belonging to the historical setting.
“For me, setting it in a modern backdrop just takes care of all that,” said Davies.
“It forces me to take a very deft political hand with my cut.”
Davies also hopes she has found a deft solution to Winter’s Tale’s infamous stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
“It’s a particular challenge when you’re working outdoors,” she said.
Her solution aims to engage the audience’s imagination, “because that’s the opportunity to create fear.”
This season marks the second time in the festival’s history it has run a second play with no relation to Shakespeare, the first being The Three Musketeers in 2017.
Although written in 1897, Cyrano de Bergerac, the story of a swashbuckling soldier who hides his love for the beautiful Roxane out of shame over his deformed nose, is based, loosely, on the historical figure of the same name who was born nearly three years after Shakespeare’s death.
The play is written by the French playwright Edmond Rostand and adapted by Deborah McAndrew, a British actor and playwright and also the wife of this production’s director, Conrad Nelson.
Cyrano opens on Wednesday, July 17, at 7 p.m., with a pay-what-you-can preview the previous night.
More information on the season and tickets is available by calling 613-925-5788, or online at www.stlawrenceshakespeare.ca/stlawrenceshakespeare.