Review: “Best for Winter, being a short Shakespeare adapted from The Winter’s Tale and other works” (Idle Muse Theatre Company)

Elizabeth MacDougald and Brian Bengtson/Photo: Steven Townshend.

“A sad tale’s best for winter,” one performer tells another at the start of Idle Muse’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s most improbable play, “The Winter’s Tale.” The above line is repeated later in “Best for Winter, being a short Shakespeare adapted from The Winter’s Tale and other works” and its certainty evokes morning frost and endless grey skies. Early April in Chicago often features days below thirty, so the audience is perhaps primed for the woe ready to befall these Jacobean characters. But there’s a trick to this story of betrayal, murder, and grief. Not only does a bear save a child’s life, but circumstances turn bright after an impossible rebirth. The play may be improbable, the acting and directing suggests, but that does not make its grief pointless.

Leontes (Brian Bengtson) becomes a tyrant king in the production’s opening moments. Concerned about his wife Hermione’s (Mara Kovacevic) friendship with neighboring ruler Polixenes (Eric Schnitger), he first orders adviser Camilla (Laura Jones Macknin) to poison his imagined rival, and then imprisons his bride once Polixenes flees to his native Bohemia. No one will confirm what Leontes believes to be true, and the innocent Hermione dies after giving birth to Perdita (Kristen Alesia), who escapes death only due to interruption by bear, and grows up in exile as a shepherdess in Polixenes’ kingdom. She and Bohemia’s prince Florizel (Brian Healy) fall in love, and then things get really weird.

Director and adaptor Evan Jackson never downplays or seeks to course-correct the odd coincidences and magical moments of “A Winter’s Tale,” and his production is the better for it. Shakespeare is never insincere, and to laugh at his shortcuts and fantastical leap into miracles is to misunderstand the story being told. “A Winter’s Tale” begins as a tragedy, and ends with the cost of said drama lightened, but not fully lifted. Jackson creates a barebones production, with help from Laura J. Wiley’s evocative lights and projections, while focusing heavily on the script’s heightened language. Also, Wiley’s bear puppet is a lot of menacing fun; it caused several children to jump from their seats and roar at intermission on the night I attended.

Bengtson is terrifying in his certainty, awoken by so very little. Elizabeth McDougald as the magician Paulina hammers home the injustices created by the king’s jealousy, and Kovacevic embraces Hermione’s vulnerability as strength. In this era of tough conversations and expanded awareness, many companies are programming “Measure for Measure.” But perhaps we should all take a second look at “A Winter’s Tale.” In a world where women are wronged and disbelieved, even magic cannot completely set things right. Time is still lost, relationships torn apart, and the cost almost always falls on those who have less power. If you want a sad tale before spring sets in, check out Idle Muse’s unflinching production of this late-stage romance.

DICE RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The impossible is given its due in an elegant production.

Show: “Best for Winter, being a short Shakespeare adapted from The Winter’s Tale and other works”

Company: Idle Muse Theatre Company

Venue: The Edge Theater Off-Broadway (1133 W Catalpa Ave)