By ANNE SIEGEL
Under a towering grove of old growth trees, on an exceptionally balmy evening, the Summit Players were hurriedly making preparations for their production of free Shakespeare in Wisconsin parks. This year they are presenting one of the Bard’s lesser-known plays, The Winter’s Tale.
Including 2020, when the pandemic forced them to cancel all performances, this is the sixth year for Summit Players Theatre. In 2021, they are resuming an exhaustive schedule that takes them to various Wisconsin state parks. They are diehard road warriors, to be sure. This year, they will perform in 24 different parks across the state.
When the weather cooperates, Summit Players performs outdoors in front of a backdrop. This is true even if the temperature dips to 50 degrees or soars into the 90s. In the case of rain, the performers merely go indoors. Sometimes that means performing in a nearby air-conditioned park pavilion. At other times, they take shelter at an outdoor picnic site. They have nothing to protect them from the elements other than a rough-hewn wooden roof anchored by one wall and a few support beams.
According to a member of the production staff, hardy Wisconsin theatergoers, who have brought camp chairs and/or blankets to the show, seem unfazed by the weather.
With so much traveling involved, it’s no surprise that Summit Players must create their magic with minimal sets and costumes. What is surprising is that there are no backstage dressers, despite the fact that some actors must appear as several characters during the performance. For The Winter’s Tale, one imagines it requires skill and practice during rehearsals to become quick-change artists.
As is tradition, each play is artfully trimmed to a 75-minute show without intermission. This makes it a perfect length for squirmy kids (who are a most welcome part of the audience) and for older audiences who want to transport themselves into a brief sally into Shakespeare-lite.
This year’s show originally was chosen to be performed in 2020. In past years, this non-Equity, non-profit theater has staged far more familiar works, such as Romeo and Juliet, The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night.
On this particular evening, even lesser-known Shakespeare was still able to attract an impressive crowd of about 120 adults and children. Before the show, everyone claimed a spot on the wide expanse of lawn with a camp chair or a blanket.
Performing a play called The Winter’s Tale in the summertime isn’t the least of the show’s oddities. Putting The Winter’s Tale into the context of Shakespeare’s canon has also troubled scholars over the centuries. Not quite a comedy nor a tragedy, it is often referred to as a “late romance.” The “late” aspect refers to the fact that it’s among Shakespeare’s last plays.
Though the plot and characters may be unfamiliar to many, the play does contain one of theatre’s most famous stage directions: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
Long before the bear arrives, the action here is focused on the kingdom of Sicilia. Maura Atwood, looking and acting every bit a royal, plays Queen Hermione. The queen is wrongly suspected of adultery by her jealous husband, King Leontes. Actor Michael Nicholas is a convincing Leontes, who later realizes that his rage has caused the death of his son, not to mention his pregnant queen.
Jackson Hoemann makes the most of his role as a neighboring king, an old friend of Leontes. In the wake of Leontes’ current wrath, King Polixenes is tipped off that his life is in danger. Wisely, he returns home.
As is true of many summer Shakespeare troupes, Summit Players leans hard on comic effect. This reaches a climax later in the show, when a pair of cuddly plush sheep magically sing and dance. The bear makes an appearance, too. (But he is basically hidden behind the backdrop, with only his ears and claws visible to the crowd.)
Switching back to the cast, Caroline Norton makes a fetching Perdita, the formerly abandoned infant of King Leontes. She has grown up as a shepherd girl in Bohemia. As a young girl, her beauty mesmerizes King Polixene’s son, Florizel (exuberantly played by Cole Conrad). Eventually, Perdita’s royal background is discovered and the two plan to wed.
Even Queen Hermione re-enters the picture before the curtain closes. It turns out that she has not died as was previously announced. A joyous King Leontes realizes the error of his ways and embraces his queen. He asks to be forgiven by Polixenes.
During the show, theatergoers are kept on their toes (figuratively) by large signs that seek audience participation. Following a brief, pre-show warm-up using a couple of the signs, the audience is then invited to respond to the sign’s instructions, which include cheers, loud muttering and bird calls.
Director Maureen Kilmurry emphasizes the show’s comic aspects throughout. Many of the funnier moments are sparked by ingenious costuming by Amelia Strahan, or simple yet effective backdrops by Carl Eiche. Theatergoers who choose to venture Into the Woods with the Summit Players can look forward to an unlimited evening of fun.
Cast: Maura Atwood, Jackson Hoemann, Michael Nicholas, Caroline Norton, Cole Conrad, Kaylene Howard.
Technical: Sets: Carl Eiche; Costumes: Amelia Strahan; Script editor: Maureen Kilmurry.
Opened: June 12, 2021
Ends: August 22, 2021
City: Milwaukee and throughout Wisconsin.