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Spend a summer evening with ‘The Winter’s Tale’

Commonwealth Shakespeare Company brings the Bard to Boston Common

Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

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Spend a summer evening with ‘The Winter’s Tale’
Bryn Boice (far left), director of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s free summer production of “The Winter’s Tale” stands with lead cast members Marianna Bassham, Nael Nacer and Omar Robinson. PHOTO: NILE SCOTT STUDIOS

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A head of state believes he has been betrayed, despite all evidence to the contrary. He sets out to destroy his perceived rival and ruins many people in the process. So begins William Shakespeare’s late-career play, “The Winter’s Tale.”

“It’s a play we need right now — one that becomes a tale of redemption,” says Elliot Norton Award-winning director Bryn Boice, who will direct “The Winter’s Tale” in this summer’s 27th annual Free Shakespeare on the Common production by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company.

A nonprofit theater founded in 1996 by its artistic director Steven Maler, CSC draws more than 50,000 people to its annual productions on the Boston Common, conducted in partnership with the city of Boston. On stage July 16 to Aug. 4 at the Parkman Bandstand on Boston Common, the show is free, and audience members may bring chairs and blankets or rent chairs for $10. Performances are open-captioned as part of CSC’s Access Infrastructure Initiative.

“Shakespeare wrote this play at a mature place in his career,” says Boice, who is CSC’s associate artistic director, speaking by phone two days before the start of rehearsals. “He had been writing comedies, tragedies and history plays. Here, he takes chances on form, with a new way of storytelling that expresses the complexity of life, which is not all comedy or tragedy.”

“The Winter’s Tale” unfolds after King Leontes of Sicilia falsely accuses his pregnant wife, Hermione, of infidelity with his childhood friend, Polixenes, the King of Bohemia.

“The play starts out tragically, with the central figure, Leontes, believing his version of the truth,” says Boice. “No one can convince him otherwise — not even an oracle. He insists on his version of the facts.” 

Over five acts, “The Winter’s Tale” spans 16 years, two generations and two kingdoms — Sicilia and Bohemia. As they render the story of transformation at the heart of the play, Boice and her staging team — including scenic designer James J. Fenton and costume designer Rachel Padula-Shufelt — will contrast the two kingdoms.

“It’s brutalism versus personal freedom,” says Boice. “We’ll cast Sicilia in a monotone palette, while Bohemia, a place where anything goes, will radiate colors worthy of a rave.”

In Sicilia, noble characters suffer and die, while in Bohemia, a knave’s mischievous plot fails and a bumbling shepherd rescues an abandoned infant.

“Shakespeare creates scenes of cathartic lightness as well as darkness,” says Boice. “And he gives Hermione and her friend Paulina gorgeous speeches. In moments when they are denied agency, their words express agency.”

Joining Boice in conjuring this host of characters is an all-star group of New England actors, including Nael Nacer as Leontes; Marianna Bassham as Hermione; Omar Robinson as Polixenes; multi-Elliot Norton Award-winner Paula Plum, a founding member of Actors’ Shakespeare Project (ASP), as Paulina; Tony Estrella, Gamm Theatre artistic director, as Camillo; Richard Snee as the Shepherd; Robert Walsh, an ASP founding member, as Antigonus; and Ryan Winkles as Autolycus.

“I love this play. It’s messy. I enjoy that,” says Robinson. “The sudden rage of Leontes comes out of nowhere. He and Polixenes have been friends from childhood. A deep relationship is shattered. It’s not a cut-and-dry tragedy or comedy. It has elements of both. The story begins in darkness and as time passes it moves into spring and the energy of youth. Its layers draw me in.”