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In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

Beth Mulkerron, Mark Corkins and Tom Reed in Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale." (PHOTO: Michelle Owczarski)

Optimist stages high-level production of Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale"

We all know about those Shakespeare plays -- like "Hamlet" and "Macbeth" and "King Lear" and "Romeo and Juliet" -- in which there are problems, big problems, dastardly deeds and an ending that is bitter and sad.

Maybe that's why "The Winter's Tale" is one of the Bard's lesser-known works. It just doesn't fit our perception of one of his plays.

Thanks to Optimist Theatre and its free Shakespeare in the Park, Milwaukee audiences will get a healthy dose of "The Winter's Tale" for the next three weekends at the stunning Kadish Park theater in Riverwest.

This production is a good example of how it is often possible to overthink a Shakespearean play. Debates have raged for decades about just what this play is – a tragedy, a comedy, something else?

Trying to outthink Shakespeare is a futile and frivolous task. Better to just watch the story and go along with where he takes you.

The story is of two kings, Leontes of Sicily (Tom Reed) and Polixenes of Bohemia (Mark Corkins).

Leontes is married to the very pregnant Hermione (Beth Mulkerron) but gets jealous when he thinks she is getting it on with Polixenes, even though she isn't. First he banishes her (and she gives birth to a girl while banished) and then she dies.

Polixenes goes home with Camillo, who used to be a servant to Leontes and now serves Polixenes.

Confused yet? Of course you are. It's Shakespeare at his most complex. Lots of characters. Lots of relationships. Lots of madness and betrayal mistaken identities and birthing and banishing.

Then comes the second act. Sixteen years have passed instead of the terror and suspense of the first act, we have a steady and funny march toward a happy ending.

At the end Leontes and Polixenes are friends again, their children are getting married and Hermione magically comes back to life. All is well is both Sicily and Bohemia.

Here's the thing about this production. If you try real hard to understand every sentence, every nuance and every relationship, it can make you feel stupid. And nobody likes that.

So the best thing to do is sit back and let the chips fall where they may.

There are many outstanding performances in this play, led by Mulkerron, who has long been one of my favorite Milwaukee actors.

In the first act, as Hermione, she does the impossible, making an eight-months pregnant woman seem sultry and oh, so desirable as she cajoles Polixenes to stay. Her voice and her eyes cast a spell that stretches to the far reaches of the audience.

In the second act (after Hermione has died) Mulkerron comes back as Autolycus, a peddler, minor thief and a rogue of the highest order.

Her performance, which calls for her to sing in her special voice, is gigantic. She has pitch perfect comedic timing coupled with a body and face that weave magic that bring the first genuine roars of laughter are heard.

As he continues to grow as an actor she has truly become a force to be reckoned with in Milwaukee theater.

Corkins and Reed are two experienced and savvy actors for whom the text of Shakespeare is not a problem. Just listening to them helps you appreciate the rhythm and beauty of the language. Corkins has a versatility about him that is almost overwhelming. Just in the last year I've seen him play a savage murderous South African jailer and now a king who gets a bad rap and he's been a study in magnificence as both.

Mention has to be made of the funniest parts of the second act, when Mulkerron teams with Brian Miracle, who plays a clown, to do a verbal, physical and metaphysical dance that is sheer delight. Miracle is a wonderful comedian and has the mugging skills perfect for the part.

ML Cogar, who is Reed's wife, directed this production. She has extensive experience as a dramaturg and her love and respect for the language shows clearly. The best thing about her work on this show is that she let the play be a play. She didn't force anything in order to help the play have a through line. She just let it all happen.

This is season No. 5 for Optimist, where the commitment to free performances of Shakespeare has taken root. With help from sponsors, especially the BMO Harris Bank, this little company has found its place in Milwaukee.

The only hope is that it continues to grow, continues to have high standards and find more and more support for longer runs and maybe even two productions a summer.

"The Winter's Tale" runs through June 29. Information is available here.


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