Story: Leontes, the king of Sicilia, is overjoyed by the extended visit of his childhood chum Polixenes, now the king of Bohemia. After nine months, though, Polixenes yearns to return to his kingdom and his son, Prince Florizel. Leontes then asks his pregnant wife, Queen Hermione, to persuade Polixenes to stay a while longer. A few entreaties later, she succeeds.
Or does she? Suddenly, Leontes becomes suspicious that Polixenes will listen to Hermione but not to him. He angrily accuses his wife of having an affair with his best friend, and orders the loyal lord Camillo to poison Polixenes. Instead, Camillo warns the latter, and the two of them flee to Bohemia.
Meanwhile, Leontes has Hermione imprisoned, which leads to the death of their only child, Mamillius. He also instructs two Sicilian lords, Dion and Cleomenes, to visit the Oracle at Delphos for confirmation of the queen’s infidelity.
Hermione gives birth to a girl named Perdita, who is brought to Leontes by her friend Paulina in an attempt to get him to express remorse and apologize. Instead, Leontes orders Paulina’s husband, Antigonus, to abandon the baby in a faraway land. Antigonus does so, landing in Bohemia before being killed by a bear. An elderly shepherd finds the baby and raises her as his own in the home he shares with his son.
The noblemen return from the oracle with confirmation of Hermione’s innocence, which Leontes refuses to believe. Paulina informs him that Hermione has died. Eventually Leontes regrets his actions, but is told by Paulina he cannot remarry until she selects a queen for him.
As 16 years pass, Perdita falls in love with Florizel, who is in disguise as a shepherd named Doricles. Polixenes is angered by this news, and with Camillo visits a sheep-shearing festival in disguise. He reveals himself to Florizel and forbids the marriage, but the two young people escape to Sicily.
In that country, Leontes is reunited with his long-lost daughter, and Polixenes learns that Perdita has noble blood. When all of them descend upon the country home of Paulina, Leontes sees that a lifelike statue there of Hermione has come to life and is actually her. His penance paid, he is grateful for the return of his wife and daughter.
Highlights: One of Shakespeare’s later works, The Winter’s Tale is part tragedy, part comedy and part romance, in that order. Bruce Longworth, associate artistic director of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, describes The Winter’s Tale as “one of my favorite plays.” As director of the festival’s current presentation, he’s dressed it up a bit and added a trick here and there to provide an evening’s entertainment under the stars in Forest Park.
Other Info: Dorothy Marshall Englis costumes Longworth’s cast in attire more suited to Shakespeare’s time, with elegant threads adorning the royalty and utilitarian togs for the shepherds. In Scott Neale’s scenic design, an impressive, towering façade serves as background for the action at the front of the stage, with a colorful, pastoral backdrop for the second act, which takes place mainly in Bohemia.
All of it enjoys careful illumination by lighting designer John Wylie, whose soft focus underscores the more romantic aspects of the second act, as well as the comic interludes. Rusty Wandall’s sound design blends with Wylie’s fearsome silhouette of a bear in the famous scene marked by the Bard’s direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear,” that precedes the death of Antigonus, with a mighty roar, as well as sounds of ominous thunder in other scenes.
Longworth calls The Winter’s Tale “a harrowing story of what can happen when we act precipitously … At the same time, it’s optimistic in its belief … that true repentance can lead to true forgiveness, that love and faith are powerful things.”
Group: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
Venue: Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park near the Art Museum
Dates: Nightly except Tuesdays through June 25
Tickets: Free admission; for information, call 314-531-9800 or visit sfstl.com
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5