by Lisa Jensen published on August 15, 2019

Santa Cruz Shakespeare takes a chance with its third repertoire production of the summer, The Winter’s Tale.

It may be one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known works, but the SCS production values are typically impeccable, the players act up a storm, and costumes by Ulises Alcala segue from the glamorous ’40s into the early ’60s over the play’s 16-year time span.

(Further proof that the ’60s are all the rage this summer, from Beehive to Yesterday. And, yes, it’s weird when your childhood inspires nostalgia for the distant past!)

But it’s easy to see why The Winter’s Tale is sometimes considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” Written late in his career, it’s neither comedy nor tragedy, exactly, dabbling in a kind of tentative magic realism that will only reach full bloom in the fantastical enchantments of his masterful final play, The Tempest.

Lindsay Smiling, Ian Merrill Peakes & Karen Peakes. Photo by Shmuel Thaler.

The main problem in the more somber first act is the raging suspicion of King Leontes (Ian Michael Peakes) of Sicilia that his pregnant wife, Hermione (Karen Peakes) has been unfaithful with his best friend, King Polixenes (Lindsay Smiling), visiting from his kingdom of Bohemia.

Even though Hermione is innocent, Leontes is at full boil from almost he very first scene — it’s as if the entire plot of Othello has already happened offstage, plunging us into the conflict with no backstory whatsoever.

And this time there’s no malignant Iago pouring poison into the king’s ear for political gain. Leontes’ delusion of his wife’s infidelity is entirely self-inflicted. The seething, choking fury of Peakes’ Leontes is electrifying, but the audience remains flummoxed.

Chavez Ravine smolders with outrage as court lady, Paulina, the only one with the backbone to stand up to the king’s madness.

Chavez Ravine. Photo by Shmuel Thaler.

Fortunately, the action shifts to Bohemia for the more lighthearted Act II, where the SCS production unleashes its secret weapon: Allen Gilmore.

As the rogue, Autolycus, peddler, thief and mischief-maker, Gilmore comes onstage lustily singing the vintage honky-tonk ditty, “Snatch And Grab It,” in addition to the introductory song that Shakespeare actually wrote for him. The parallel songs mesh deliciously in Gilmore’s adroitly funky delivery.

Allen Gilmore. Photo by Jana Marcus.

In Bohemia, we find the comic banter of a humble Shepherd (the always-reliable Tommy Gomez) and his wide-eyed son, Clown (Adrian Zamora). We also get the romance of winsome foundling, Perdita (Allie Pratt), raised by the shepherds, and stalwart young Florizel (an appealing Uche Elueze), the son of Polixenes.

A gentle fantasy element comes into play as the play’s two halves are resolved in the name of love and redemption.

Director Raelle Myrick-Hodges makes inventive use of the character, Time. Traditionally, the character functions as a chorus at the beginning of Act II to explain the passage of 16 years.

But here, as personified by Patty Gallagher in full Elizabethan dress, she flits in and out of the action throughout the play, in (mostly) silent observation — except at the very end of Act I.

Patty Gallagher. Photo by Shmuel Thaler.

When the action revolves around a newborn infant in a basket, Gallagher is onstage to provide the most impressive range of cooing, crying, gurgling baby noises you will ever hear outside of an actual baby!

(The Winter’s Tale plays through September 1 at the Audrey Stanley Grove in Delaveaga Park.)