"Life can turn on a dime,” said Bruce Longworth, the director of this year’s Shakespeare Festival St. Louis production of “The Winter’s Tale,” which opens on June 2 and runs through June 25.
Considered one of William Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” because the subject matter falls neither neatly into the category of comedy or tragedy, Longworth, who is also associate artistic director of the festival, believes this play best emulates the reality of life.
“You begin every day and you don’t know how the day is going to end,” Longworth told St. Louis on the Air contributor Steve Potter. “It has surprises: some good, some very bad. The play reflects that. Life in 1610, when the play was written, was uncertain and Shakespeare’s audiences understood that uncertainty on a visceral level. There were no guarantees.”
Rick Dildine, the artistic and executive director of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, said that although many people do not consider the play one of Shakespeare’s top ten, it holds an important place in the canon.
“It is important in terms of Shakespeare’s writing as a playwright, where he was in his trajectory, where he wasn’t writing a purely comic or a purely tragic play, but rather a mix,” said Dildine.
Cherie Rice, an actress in this year’s production, plays the role of Hermione, a queen who is falsely accused of adultery when she is eight months pregnant and eventually sent to prison where she gives birth.
Her husband, the king, truly believes a visitor, his best friend from childhood, who conspicuously visits for nine months, is the culprit. Tragedy, comedy, the Gods and a murder plot unfold from there.
“By the time Shakespeare got to this point in his writing, he knew what audiences wanted,” Rice said. “Hamlet is a lot to sit through, there are some clowns but it is a bit dark. I think at this point he knew that the audiences want to laugh, cry and love. He wrote a play to suit what audiences were wanting.”
Rice was drawn to her character because of the queen’s fortitude.
“The thing I’ve learned throughout this process is that Hermione is full of grace,” Rice said. “She’s a true queen. She’s the kind of queen that even when taken out of the castle remains as regal and honorable as she possibly can. The challenge for me was trying to portray that and live up for how amazing she deals with these circumstances.”
Rice has performed with the festival before, doing a turn as Bianca in “Othello” in 2012. She said coming back to the festival felt like a reunion with the rest of the cast and crew. She’s also a big fan of Forest Park, where the festival is performed every year, which she says (on the down-low) is better than New York City’s Central Park, where she resides most of the year.
This year’s performance will mark the third year the Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra will provide live musical accompaniment to the play. This year, the orchestra will perform in the play as well.
Another fun component of this year’s play is a continued collaboration with Schlafly Beer. Last year, in honor of the 400th anniversary of the bard’s death, the St. Louis-based brewery crafted a “1616” beer specifically for the festival. This year, the brewery has concocted a “Winter’s Ale,” for festival visitors to enjoy.
As always, the festival is free and open to the public for chair and blanket seating, but you can also reserve a special seat, blanket or picnic option here for a price.
For those unsure about the tragic-comic mix of this year’s place, Longworth assures it all ends in a traditional happy ending. In fact, Shakespeare’s most iconic stage direction will be followed at the end: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
You’ll have to see the play to understand how the production staff achieves that effect.
“There’s no real bear, but the first night we were in the park for tech, we heard the bears from the Saint Louis Zoo, so we were tempted,” Longworth said.
If You Go …
What: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis Presents "The Winter’s Tale"
When: June 2 – 25, 8 p.m. nightly, except Tuesdays
Where: Shakespeare Glen, Fine Arts Drive east of the Art Museum in Forest Park
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