116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Don’t let the title fool you. Director Adam Knight said this summer is the perfect time to see “The Winter’s Tale” on Riverside Theatre’s outdoor stage in Iowa City.
Perhaps even better than last summer, when Shakespeare’s tale of jealousy, rebirth and redemption was scheduled for the Festival Stage in Lower City Park — until the pandemic put it on pause. This year, it will be performed evenings from July 15 to 25, with free admission.
It’s the tale of two kingdoms and the fracture in their friendship stemming from King Leontes (Martin Andrews), ruler of Sicily, accusing his wife, Queen Hermione (Jessica Link), of having an affair with his best friend since childhood, Polixenes, the king of Bohemia (Aaron Weiner).
What: “The Winter’s Tale”
Where: Riverside Theatre’s Festival Stage, Lower City Park, 200 Park Rd., Iowa City
When: 7:30 p.m. July 15 to 18 and 22 to 25
Admission: Free, no ticket needed
Extras: Seating is first-come, masks not required, socially distanced section available; lawn activities and food trucks at 6:30 p.m., Green Show introduction to the play at 7 p.m.
Polixenes escapes back to Bohemia, but Leontes sends his pregnant wife to jail for infidelity, believing her unborn child was fathered by Polixenes. In his anger, the Sicilian king becomes increasingly tyrannical.
“But then Shakespeare does this thing where he doesn’t allow this tragedy to continue. He flips it on its head and makes it a comedy,” Knight said, noting that in the second half, the next generation seeks to bridge the divide between kingdoms and families.
“A year ago, the play meant different things than it does now. So in some ways, this isn’t just about doing what we had planned to do,” said Knight, who also serves as Riverside Theatre’s producing artistic director.
“Taking this text that a year ago seemed to be a play about how a society deals with a tyrant — and now this play, for me, is about rebirth. It’s about what happens after a challenging episode, and how society and a family can heal from them. That, to me, speaks to this moment very much.”
Knight has had another year to think about the way he would approach this work, but he’s actually been living with the script for more than a decade, since serving as associate director for a 2009 production in Washington, D.C.
“Ever since that production, the play has been with me and kind of gestating. The play changes for me.
“The most important thing theater can do for me is be present,” he said. “Whenever I work on a play, I try to look at it as if I’ve never seen it before, and really think, what does it mean now in this moment? What does it mean to me, what does it mean to our community (and) what I think it means in a larger context.”
Despite the gap between the 17th and 21st centuries, making the show relatable to modern audiences is part of the challenge and charm for today’s theater troupes.
“What’s so great about Shakespeare is that we come to it and fill it with who we are now,” Knight said. “We’re not doing the play as Shakespeare would have done it in 1609. That’s not what theater wants anyway. Part of the truth of Shakespeare is meeting it half way and finding something very present in something very distant.”
Behind the title
According to the Royal Shakespeare Company, the play is believed to have been written around 1609 to 1611, with the first recorded performance being May 15, 1611, at London’s Globe Theatre — the venue that inspired Riverside’s Festival Stage design.
In Shakespeare’s day, audiences would have known what the title meant.
“It was a term that referred to a ghost story or a monster story — a goblin tale,” Knight said. “I think that Shakespeare’s audiences would have come in expecting something to surprise them.”
“The Winter’s Tale” doesn’t have literal monsters, he added.
“The goblin in this play is in Leontes’ mind — it’s his jealousy,” Knight said. “Very early in the play, he becomes intensely jealous of his childhood best friend and his wife, and that jealousy drives the first half of the play, and leads the play down a tragic path.”
The changes in tone bring the seasons into play for today’s viewers, alluding to the life cycle of earth, Knight said, with winter being the nadir, or low point in the first half, and spring and summer bringing rebirth in the second half.
“The rebirth for Shakespeare is in the next generation. The play transports us 16 years into the future, and this new generation is able to move on from the mistakes of the previous generation, and is able to heal and to find forgiveness,” Knight said.
From Aug. 13 to 22, Riverside returns to the Festival Stage with Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors,” directed by Angie Toomsen, Theatre Cedar Rapids’ artistic director, and a recent collaborator with the Iowa City troupe.
From the titles, the tone of the two shows seems very different, but Knight said they’re united in an unusual way.
“Both plays are about characters discovering who they are,” he said. “Both plays are also two of Shakespeare’s only surprise endings. What’s the old adage? ‘Comedy is tragedy plus time.’ Both plays take a situation that on its face could be very tragic, and finds the joy and the comedy in it — which feels pretty relevant right now.”
To celebrate Riverside’s 40th anniversary, as well as giving audiences more theatrical experiences and further using the Festival Stage’s scenic setting, the professional troupe is returning to the days when it presented two Shakespearean plays outdoors.
But instead of running them in rotation beginning in June, Knight decided to head for the drier months, staging one in July and the other in August, with each show having its own, separate scenery.
The free seating is general admission, with no ticket required, so audience members are encouraged to come early, stake out a seat, then enjoy the preshow activities beginning at 6:30 p.m., featuring games on the lawn and food trucks selling refreshments.
The Green Show, directed by Christopher Okiishi, will begin at 7 p.m. in the adjacent picnic area. The added experience offers all ages a comedic glimpse into the play, as well as a glimpse into Shakespeare’s realm.
“Making it free fulfills our mission,” Knight said. “The mission of the Riverside Shakespeare Festival is that Shakespeare is for everyone. I love watching families come, I love that we have a space where people can bring their kids. …
“For some audience members, this is their first introduction to Shakespeare, their first introduction to live theater, and what a gift to be able to do that.”
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