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Review: T.O. gets up close and personal with top acting talent in ‘Tale’ (Includes first-hand account)

A big reason is that Abbey has recruited some of the country’s finest acting talent for his directorial debut. The Winter’s Tale, which opened on Thursday, abounds with familiar faces from the Stratford and Shaw festivals, including Tom McCamus (who’s also appearing in the current Oscar-nominated film Room), Lucy Peacock, Michelle Giroux, Patrick Galligan and Tony-winner Brent Carver. And by staging the play as theatre-in-the-round in a tiny, 100-seat independent space in the city’s east end, as opposed to a more traditional theatre with a distant proscenium arch or thrust stage, Abbey gives budget-conscious T.O. theatregoers a rare chance to feel up close and personal with these fine artists. Indeed, some of the performances in the first half are so intense that you may feel as if the actors are breathing down your neck.

It’s an intimate way of watching world-class live Shakespeare that you’ve likely never experienced. And that it works so well is all the more impressive when you consider that Abbey didn’t pick a more obvious, established classic like Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet to launch his company. Believed to have been written late in Shakespeare’s career, The Winter’s Tale is rightly considered one of the Bard’s “problem” plays by many scholars. On the page, it reads like two halves of completely unrelated plays stitched together hastily, following three acts of dark royal melodrama with a lengthy fourth act of light musical comedy, while most of the important resolutions of the last act happen offstage, recounted in soliloquy by roguish trickster Autolycus (Carver, in one of two roles).

It begins with Sicilian king Leontes (McCamus) entertaining a visiting childhood friend, Polixenes (Galligan), king of Bohemia. When Leontes’ pregnant wife Hermione (Giroux) persuades Polixenes to stay, a little too quickly and easily, Leontes suddenly suspects the other king of cuckolding him and impregnating the queen. This rash accusation eventually leads to death for some, escape to Bohemia for others and a famous bear attack. (In fact, the only real disappointment in this production is that you don’t get to see the “Exit pursued by a bear” bear; the chase apparently happens offstage, after Carver’s Antigonus leaves.) A time passage of 16 years allows for the abrupt change in tone from familial tragedy to comedy and sentiment – as introduced by Time himself, here played by George Meanwell, who also composed and performs a score on cello and violin.

Again, the play’s no Lear or Midsummer Night’s Dream, but this group of actors will make you forget that in a hurry, at least for the first half. McCamus’ Leontes is a paranoid, self-deluding wreck whose 180-degree switch from amiable party host to mad, jealous tyrant is actually convincing, if only because of the way he reasons his fears out to himself and the audience. Sometimes he seems weak and tortured — lying on the floor, pausing in his speech as if having physical spasms — and other times, he’s frightening: when he sees his newborn daughter and threatens, “The bastard brains with these my proper hands / Shall I dash out,” you believe he could do it.

Giroux’ Hermione matches his insanity with compassion, gentleness and, most importantly, an aura of honesty. One of the highlights of the first half is her long speech defending herself against Leontes’ charges — “I do confess / I loved [Polixenes], as in honour he required,” etc. — which Giroux delivers with a passion and dignity that make you wonder how anyone could fail to believe her. But topping both McCamus and Giroux is Stratford staple Peacock as Paulina, Hermione’s loyal defender, who rips at Leontes’ behaviour with a mix of tough love and fiery rage. Her grief-stricken delivery of tragic news to the king in the third act is manic and ferocious, even attacking him physically.

Supporting performances shine here as well. Carver exudes kindness and a sense of duty in the first half as Antigonus, who saves Leontes’ and Hermione’s infant daughter Perdita by taking her to Bohemia, and he’s lovably playful in the second half as Autolycus, who starts off as a clownish con man, but later gives in to his better nature. Charlie Gallant is thoroughly charming and energetic as Florizel, the love-struck son of Polixenes, and I also liked Robert Persichini’s grumpy, bewildered take on the Bohemian shepherd who finds the abandoned Perdita (although his second role as Sicilian lord Cleomones seems strangely phoned in). As the adult Perdita, Sarena Parmar might have been a standout in a lesser production, but her performance suffers a bit after the dynamics, complexity and experience of Giroux and Peacock.

Although The Winter’s Tale is Abbey’s directing debut, you sense he learned a lot about direction from eighteen seasons of watching others do it as an actor at Stratford. This is a production that really moves, with rarely a wasted or dull moment, like a finely tuned machine, and Abbey has the right instincts for when to slow down and go soft and when to be loud and boisterous. He also takes a bold risk by opening the play with a scene of an older, repentant Leontes watching a projected video of Hermione and their son, Mamilius (Callum McAlister), while lamenting his past errors with Paulina; this conceit doesn’t add anything essential, but at least it gets your attention.

This Winter’s Tale is a fine kickoff for Abbey’s directorial career and for the Groundling company, as well as a further boost to Coal Mine’s reputation for quality theatre in its second season. If you’re in Toronto and can’t make a Stratford or Shaw show this year, this may be just as good an option – and you don’t even have to rent a car.

The Winter’s Tale runs at the Coal Mine Theatre until February 20.

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