Jennifer Cameron as Camillo and Corina Akeson as King Leontes. Photo by BeattyOei Photography.
Jennifer Cameron as Camillo and Corina Akeson as King Leontes. Photo by BeattyOei Photography.

The summer of Shakespeare continues as Classic Chic Productions presents The Winter’s Tale, a show as entertaining as anything you are going to see in Vanier Park.  Plus it has air conditioning.

[pullquote]There is a delicious irony in knowing that Classic Chic was formed after its principals realized that with so few roles for women at our city’s annual Shakespeare festival many of those that auditioned would most likely not find summer employment.[/pullquote]It’s a banner year for fans of the Bard with this all-female mounting of The Winter’s Tale equal among the solid choices already on display under the red and white tents on the other side English Bay.  And along with this gorgeously realized production, there is a delicious irony in knowing that Classic Chic was formed after its principals realized that with so few roles for women at our city’s annual Shakespeare festival many of those that auditioned would most likely not find summer employment.

Rather than a re-imagined version of one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”, where the roles are changed to suit the gender of this all-female company, here the women play the characters as originally written: as both men and women.  Donning male attire and with facial hair aplenty, this large cast of 21 women transform themselves into the male characters as easily as those that play the traditional female roles.

Founded on the notion that there are great roles in theatre for both men and women, Classic Chic provides its company of women with an opportunity to explore those meaty roles regardless of gender.  More than a gimmick, the goal here is to provide an opportunity to hone their craft without being limited by playing roles of their own sex.  And while it takes a few minutes to set aside our gender biases toward the roles of King Leontes, Camillo and Polixenes “et al”, the performances from this talented cast help us quickly shed our culturally ingrained preconceptions of masculine and feminine.

Originally considered a comedy, many scholars now place The Winter’s Tale among Shakespeare’s “problem plays” with its combination of tragedy and comedy.  It tells the story of King Leontes who has become convinced that his wife has been unfaithful with his best friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia.  Warned by the King’s courtier Camillio, the two run away together to Bohemia.  In the meantime, another member of the King’s court, Antigonous, is ordered to leave Hermione’s newly born daughter on a desert shore.  As luck would have it, the daughter is left on the coast of Bohemia and taken in by a shepherd and his son.  Sixteen years later, she ends up being courted by Polixenes’ son, Prince Florizel, who has disguised himself as a shepherd.

If you watch Corina Akeson as King Leontes, you will actually see her find her character’s justification in accusing her wife of adultery, where none really exists.  And while Akeson does tend towards a perpetual snarl, that initial transformation from loving husband to jealous beast is incredible to watch.

As his wife Hermione, Alexis Kellum-Creer proves that there also great roles for women with an elegance that is contrasted beautifully with the anguish of being falsely accused.  Kellum-Creer handles the sometimes problematic statute scene with a suitable grace.

Other stand-outs here are Jennifer Cameron as Camillo and Monice Peter as Polixenes.  The duo not only finds the strength of their characters, but gives us one of the most wonderfully realized scenes of the play as the plot against Polixenes is revealed.

As the rogue vagabond Autolycus, Janet Glasford is the definition of fearless, although her performance at times does overshadow those around her.  A small quibble, but it did spoil some of the surprise in her performance by having her give the front-of-house announcements before the start of the show.

With all its great performances though, the real star of this production is director Lisa Wolpe who not only manages to pull such wonderful performances from her actors, but who creates some incredibly beautiful pictures on the simple, though creaky, three level playing area from designer Amanda Larder.  Seemingly in perpetual motion, Wolpe uses the relatively small space to her advantage, giving a wonderful illusion of a grand court filled to the rafters.  Attempts at breaking down the fourth wall were at times hesitant and inconsistent, but Wolpe proves her skill doesn’t just come from knowing how to make women into believable male characters.

Naomi Lazarus’ costumes are simply gorgeous and given there is no make-up artist credited, the collective cast has to be commended in creating some believable  male characters.

This year Bard on the Beach has mounted a successful first co-production with Equivocation, and while it might not be among the goals of Classic Chic, one can’t help but imagine what a beautiful marriage that might be in future years.  Are you listening and watching, Christopher Gaze?

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare.  Directed by Lisa Wolpe.  A Classic Chic Productions presentation.  On stage at the PAL Studio Theatre (581 Cardero St, Vancouver) through August 9, 2014.  Visit http://classicchic.ca for tickets and information.

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