Staging Shakespeare outdoors is a direct invitation to enjoy a playwright whose works are as reliable as a sunset for bringing us joy. Packed with possibilities, the plays always need rediscovering by theater troupes, and local theatergoers are fortunate to have the inventive talents of the Vermont Shakespeare Company working in Burlington and North Hero.
Director John Nagle and eight skilled actors find new treasures in The Winter’s Tale, and make its pastiche of somber fairy tale, spit-take comedy and pastoral romance delightfully coherent. It’s not an easy trick, for Shakespeare’s plot makes enough sharp turns to derail the less experienced.
Leontes, King of Sicilia, has a charming young son and is awaiting the birth of his second child with his loving wife, Hermione. His boyhood friend, Polixenes, is visiting, and all is serene — until Leontes fastens on the idea that Hermione and Polixenes are lovers. Unfounded jealousy consumes the king, and his irrational rejection of wife, son and newborn daughter grieves his court. Leontes will realize, too late, the error of his ways, and the play ends in redemption. It takes some young lovers and comic rustics to achieve it, and a hint of magic to reach the happy ending.
Michael Sean McGuinness brings superb acting skill to the role of Leontes, and demonstrates it best when rendering the character’s sudden, insane jealousy. As an author inventing the portrayal of personality, Shakespeare is prone to writing the result of an emotional state, and not what modern audiences would recognize as the psychological development that produces it. By playing Leontes in perfect bliss to start the play, McGuinness evokes the powerful act of imagination we’ve all found ourselves committing in our happiest moments: What if I lost this? He shows Leontes treasuring his life so deeply that he has to fear its impermanence and, in so doing, destroys it.
Nagle elegantly trains our focus on the precise moment of transition by having Polixenes, Hermione and Leontes join hands. It’s a gesture that catapults Leontes into mad suspicion, and occurs during lines when most directors would plant him far away, watching the other two while giving voice to his fears. By latching them together, Nagle makes us feel Leontes’ pain even as we grasp its irrationality.
Though Leontes’ torture will deepen further, this is nonetheless a play of redemption. Obsessive jealousy is the poison. The antidote? Wise retainers who defy orders and kindly rustics who do good deeds. To produce his happy ending, Shakespeare tries three things that appear in none of his other plays. Since second chances take time, he tosses the dramatic unities of time and place overboard and calls for a 16-year interval in the middle of the play. The happy ending contains his most showy coup de théâtre: a statue that comes to life. And he attempts a full genre mashup, combining a sad allegorical tale with a pastoral comedy.
Comic relief arises in all of Shakespeare’s plays, but The Winter’s Tale is something of a structural nightmare. Shakespeare suspends his fairy tale at its saddest point to bring on the clowns, and the comedy then envelops a pastoral, romantic interlude. When we return to the fairy tale, the comic characters stand their ground and partake in a cheerful ending. It’s an immensely difficult task for a director to make all these styles cohere.
Fortunately, Nagle has found a way. By shifting the style from straight drama to self-referential, direct engagement with the audience, he nimbly moves from tragedy to comedy. It seems as simple as having an actor do something funny, but Nagle wisely sets up these changes by letting us shift perspective before we give in to giggling.
The Vermont Shakespeare Company demonstrates the teamwork of an ensemble, with actors assembled from New York City and Vermont. Rehearsals for this production took place in both locations, yet the final product has the professional polish of gifted actors working in harmony. It will take you a while to realize that only eight performers handle the 26 roles.
In an impeccable performance, McGuinness turns Leontes, a character who is truly puzzling on the page, into a complex man deserving of both compassion and contempt.
Molly Pietz Walsh’s conviction as Hermione’s friend, Paulina, makes us hold our breath, hoping she’ll succeed in bending Leontes toward forgiveness. Walsh has a riveting physical and moral strength on stage, but she’s just as capable of reveling in the role of the rustic Mopsa.
Maggie McDowell shows Hermione’s nobility without making her bitter or pathetic by focusing keenly on the character’s need to believe that the truth can save her. McDowell’s graceful movement is a pleasure to watch.
Mark Roberts handles the supporting role of Camillo with calm clarity, and then knocks one out of the park as the entertaining and endearing Old Shepherd. Roberts’ vivid comic energy helps launch the play’s transition from solemnity to humor.
Juggling four roles, Collin Smith is impressive in all, but he’s a special delight as Clown, the Old Shepherd’s son and partner in comedy. Smith’s physical energy, faultless timing and gorgeous confidence in Clown’s nuttiest utterances are an irresistible source of laughs.
Dean Linnard shines as Autolycus, a charming thief and scoundrel. He’s faced with a lot of Shakespearean wordplay, but he distills the humor for us with an expressive face and engaging physicality. When Nagle has him pick a pocket by removing the wallet, followed by the pants, we find ourselves loving the crime.
Marielle Renée Rousseau plays Leontes’ young son with the bold freedom to indulge in the physical and vocal qualities of a child. Then she delights us as the lovesick Perdita, swooning and flirting with equal gusto. Portraying young love takes a sweet kind of courage, and Rousseau conveys the intensity of it with sublime unself-consciousness.
As the other young lover, Florizel, Kyle Smith is earnest and adorable. Nagle stages the scenes involving Perdita and Florizel with the two in constant motion, swinging from near to far in pursuit and coy recoil. Smith’s pleasure in movement handsomely conveys the love he feels.
The costumes include some nice inventions, especially to accommodate the quick changes required for a small troupe filling many roles. Leontes’ robe is needlessly unflattering in cut, but Hermione’s shimmering garments give a fine hint of the statue she will become. All the comic characters get fun and foolish attire.
The sight of a lake breeze rippling Hermione’s white dress makes us savor the setting as well as the play. Bring a picnic, and bring your kids. If it’s their first taste of Shakespeare, or yours, this production offers an opportunity to be arrested by the intensity of a moment in an imagined world. A child who realizes, for the first time, that this is how theater works will go to sleep that night with marvels in mind.
The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare, directed by John Nagle, produced by Vermont Shakespeare Company. Thursday, August 15, at 6 p.m. at Knight Point State Park, North Hero. Friday and Saturday, August 16 and 17, at 6 p.m.; and Sunday, August 18, at 4 p.m. at Oakledge Park, Burlington. $22-25, kids under 12 free, $4 parking. Info, 877-874-1911. vermontshakespeare.org 
The original print version of this article was headlined "Shakes by the Lake."