Review: The Winter’s Tale (Canadian Stage 2011 Dream in High Park)

Canadian Stage brings Shakespeare’s “problem play,” The Winter’s Tale, to life in Toronto in High Park

There really is something magical about visiting High Park on a warm Toronto evening to see a Shakespeare classic come to life in natural light until the sun goes down. It’s like the actors really did emerge from the trees, from some hidden community that lives in the park and just comes out to perform one special play, night after night, each summer. Like a spell has been cast on them.

Like a “Dream” has come true.

This feel and spirit has really permeated Estelle Shook’s realistic take on The Winter’s Tale. The minimalist musical accompaniment of percussion and strings weaves a strong thread through this emotional and relatable story. Performed by strong and versatile performers, the presentation is a minimalist breath of fresh air.The actors take a very realistic approach to the material and create tangible, relatable characters. Most actors have two roles each and I am surprised to have seen them each play such varied and contrasting characters. John Blackwood’s transformation from a more solemn and loyal Antigonus into the scoundrel, guitar-strumming pickpocket Autolycus is truly astonishing.

This is the first time in 29 years of doing the Dream that The Winter’s Tale is being performed. Without any fantastical elements it is not one of the more popular, familiar works of Shakespeare that is commonly performed outdoors. Known as a “Problem Play,” The Winter’s Tale doesn’t follow the typical structure of being either a tragedy or a comedy within Shakespeare’s canon.

The first half in fact is very much like a tragedy, with our central character Leontes, the King of Sicilia, somehow becoming stricken with jealousy, convinced that his loyal wife Hermione is having an affair with Polixenes, their friend the King of Bohemia.

Leontes shuns his new daughter who is ultimately abandoned on the shores of Bohemia and rescued and raised there by a kind Shepherd (wonderfully portrayed by George Masswohl), as we see in the second half after the sudden passage of “Time,” one of the more whimsical characters in the story.

This half is more like a comedy, however, the emotional climax, the reunion of Leontes with his daughter, is one of those scenes that Shakespeare decided to keep unseen by the audience. But then there’s that ending…

I don’t want to give much away about this fantastical story that, while blurring the lines of genre and avoiding overt fantasy, does have a magical charm to it. With one of the strangest endings it seems Shakespeare is making a comment on art itself. Though I felt Shook’s (along with Text Consultant Catherine McNally’s) condensation of the final scene did leave out a lot of the emotional charge.

Overall, this production boasts a strong and colourful cast who are appropriately showcased – such a refreshing decision in light of the venue and the aforementioned concept of actors emerging from the trees. Most performers even played an instrument at one point or another, and the minimalist set and mise-en-scene contributed to the beautiful, light, outdoorsy feel that permeated this production.

Seeing the Dream in High Park is really a magical experience that anyone who calls oneself a Torontonian must experience. It really is the most authentic way to see Shakespeare, and this production, The Winter’s Tale, is the perfect show to see in this way.


– The 2011 Canadian Stage Dream in High Park: The Winter’s Tale is playing in the High Park Amphitheatre until September 4,

– Tuesday to Sunday, at 8 pm; gate opens at 6 pm, get there early to save yourself a spot, lay out some blankets, and maybe even have a picnic

– This general-admission event is Pay-What-You-Can ($20 suggested minimum donation). Please note: Advanced booking is only available to Canadian Stage Donors.

Photo: Sean Dixon as the Clown and George Masswohl as the Old Shepherd in The Winter’s Tale. Photo by Chris Gallow.