On a multi-level back porch in the Annex, Dandelion Theatre offers up a scrappy, unassuming production of William Shakepeare’s The Winter’s Tale. The rough-hewn presentation is a little hard to access at first, but as the tale unfolds, this troupe of performers offer an experience that packs a hefty emotional punch.
Leontes (Gugun Deep Singh), King of Sicily, has invited his childhood friend, Polixenes (Edmond Clark), King of Bohemia, to visit his kingdom. His pleas to have him stay don’t work, but his wife Hermione (Tara Paterson) convinces him. This, and their warm interactions, spark an intense jealousy. Convinced the baby she’s carrying is not his own, but his friend’s, Leontes attempts to have him poisoned. A nobleman, Camillo (James Llewellyn Evans), confesses the plan to Polixenes and then escapes with him back to Bohemia.
The first three acts of this play are full of tragic set-ups and intense strife. Leontes has Hermione thrown in prison; their other child, Mamillius (Analiese Hall), dies of heartbreak. The appearance of Hermione at her trial is a devastating sight. Weak and frail; Paterson is a wrenching presence here, conveying the abject spectacle of a betrayed woman slowly removing herself from a life no longer worth her effort.
My favourite performance here is from Singh as Leontes. Even when spitting vitriol, he conveys vulnerability—a man traumatized by his own awful rancor. His asides to the audience are stirring. Despite his appalling behaviour, we empathize with him, especially when Hermione’s death sends him reeling.
The final two acts are a radical shift in tone. Sixteen years have passed. Secret marriages, nobles in disguise, and joyful reunions provide relief from the misery of the first half of the story. Within this celebratory atmosphere, the immersive aspect is intensified with an abundance of audience interaction that feels both natural and grounded by dramatic purpose.
In the finale, a statue of Hermione suddenly comes back to life. The magic of this ending is open to interpretation; there is some hint that Hermione has concocted this redemptive miracle. Regardless, the emotional impact remains the same. And a final, invented moment with the reappearance of Mamillius gives this happy ending a deeply affecting melancholic edge.
Tessa Bourchier’s contemporary wardrobe design is understated, each outfit conveying some noteworthy aspect of character. There are flashy, whimsical flourishes here and there to keep it visually dynamic.
The lacklustre backyard set-up could be better pulled together with a few striking design elements. There is, though, a cleverly used prop—a length of blue fabric—that serves as a unifying device throughout. It appears at key moments—a bundled infant, waves in a violent storm, and the veil concealing the statue of Hermione.
Max Ackerman’s direction is subtly innovative and insightful. He and movement director Macayla Paris find intriguing potential in the somewhat awkward space. Overall, there is a folksy, communal vibe. Even when not participating in a scene, actors often drift about in random corners, spectators of the their own story.
Time is character in this tale too, formally explaining to us the significant time jump. Here, played as sort of a compassionate enigma by Sivert Das, Time is an engaged participant in the storytelling. At crucial moments, he serves as a playful manipulator.
If you dress appropriately and are accepting of offbeat theatrical ventures, this production is a real treat. This cast honours the poetry with whimsy and emotional intelligence. It is rough around the edges, but the important elements are on point.