This Winter's Tale defies wags with smart performances 

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Photo by Brian Collins

Shakespeare festivals often present comedies and tragedies in rotating repertory, but the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival offers both in one night with this season's sole production.

The Winter's Tale is late-career Bard, a structural oddity that creaks between courtly tragedy and pastoral comedy. It divides critics — sometimes in their own minds. The Kansas City Star's Robert Trussell, for instance, recently called those who consider Tale a problem play "eggheads," before decrying, in his review of this production, the script's "insoluble problems."

It is, perhaps, simpler to go with a trusty diplomatic compromise and call The Winter's Tale a romance. By any label, though, the play works in director Sidonie Garrett's hands. She has embraced Tale's challenges by emphasizing its uneasy schism, chopping the multi-act script into neat halves.

The tragedy comes first. Act 1 opens in Sicilia, in the court of King Leontes and his pregnant queen, Hermione, as their friend Polixenes, the king of Bohemia, prepares to depart after a nine-month visit. The two pressure him to stay longer, but it is Hermione who finally persuades him. Her success sparks a jealous rage in her husband, whose spiral into paranoid cruelty reaps fateful consequences.

Eventually, there is comedy: Act 4 jumps forward 16 years to Bohemia, where a young maid, Perdita, and her adoptive father, a shepherd, prepare for a sheep-shearing festival. Clownish peasants join them to sing, dance, juggle, and generally demonstrate talents listed under the special-skills section of the actors' résumés. And lowly Perdita has an admirer: King Polixenes' son, Prince Florizel.

The first three acts zip by, thanks to sharp direction and an excellent cast. Bruce Roach masters Leontes' hairpin emotional turns, convincing us that there is some internal logic to his "diseased opinion." Cinnamon Schultz captures both strength and gentleness in Hermione, a woman who longs to "make tyranny tremble at patience." There also are precise performances by Robert Gibby Brand (as the ill-fated Antigonus) and Mark Robbins (as the steady Camillo). And few adjectives remain with which to praise gravitas-for-blood John Rensenhouse, so let's just say he's a fervently dependable Polixenes.

The Bohemian actors are no less skilled (Scott Cordes, as the shepherd, and Emily Peterson, as Perdita, are particularly strong), though the pacing of the second half dips slightly. These scenes offer light amusement, but some of the clowning diverts the action for too long, placing spectacle ahead of momentum.It's a handsome spectacle, at least, and Mary Traylor's Technicolor costumes and Greg Mackender's original compositions for Shakespeare's lyrics play well on this stage. The production design helps ease the stylistic and chronological transitions, starting with Gene Emerson Friedman's dusty-blue set, adorned with multiple clocks to remind us of the passage of time.

Ward Everhart's lights evoke winter's (and Leontes') chill in Act 1, transforming the set into a stately Sicilian court (though one unfortunate blue-on-blue wash suggests a blueberry bagel). Later, the comedic acts allow Everhart to swap austerity for splintered sunrises and Bohemia's more playful palette.

I look forward to the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival each year as a kickoff to the summer theater season, a slate of family-friendly blockbusters ushered in here with a cast that can deliver image-dense lines with colloquial clarity. No matter how intimidating you might have found him in grade school, Shakespeare is a crowd-pleaser first, and the diverse audiences that the festival draws serve as a reminder that the Bard is anything but staid.

It's enough to make you want to wax poetic on Shakespeare's democratic power as you scan Southmoreland Park's JoCo mothers perched on stadium seats, slathering mayo on white hoagies. Several teens in black plastic chokers loll on the naked grass and snort at certain lines (such as Hermione's "I am not prone to weeping, as our sex commonly are"). A couple, growing steadily drunker on picnic-basket wine, check each other for ticks under a Chiefs blanket.

Ah, the heavens continue their loves. The Winter's Tale is a romance, after all.

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