Ever pleased with himself, the preening leader believes that he is an infallible savant and that whatever he feels in his gut must be the truth of the world. Because of his authority, he can sometimes bend those around him to his beliefs, even if his staff members grimace like hostages as they carry out his orders.
But what if his perception is wrong? What if our overconfident leader deploys the awesome powers of the state on a false hunch?
In real life, the results can be tragic. But Shakespeare scripts a fanciful ending to such a scenario in "The Winter's Tale," which resonates instinctually in director Marcela Lorca's primal staging for Ten Thousand Things theater.
True, the production's hodgepodge of acting styles and contemporary, conversational line readings will vex Shakespearean purists. But the production, which has beautiful compositions by JD Steele and atmospheric music played by Peter Vitale, is not meant to be a presentational piece that you admire like statuary in a museum. This "Winter's Tale" is something that you feel, and that touches you, in Lorca's visceral vision, even as it evokes the fractious heterogeneous mix of rumors and hunches that show up alongside sophisticated technology in 21st-century America.
Of course, "Winter's Tale" is not set in the here and now. The action takes place in the ancient world where superstition and magic have outsized influence. King Leontes (Steven Epp) has invited his boyhood friend Polixenes (James A. Craven) to stay over at court. Polixenes declines. When Leontes' pregnant queen Hermione (Shá Cage) extends the invitation, Polixenes accepts, sending Leontes into a jealous rage.
He orders that Hermione be jailed — she would deliver her child in prison — and brings a crisis to his people.
Because it starts out looking like a drama and resolves itself with elements of romance and comedy, "Winter's Tale" is considered one of Shakespeare's so-called problem plays. It's more of a wishful thinking play than anything else as the Bard wills us a happy ending. Besides, it has the most famous stage directions in theater history — "exit, pursued by a bear."
Ten Thousand Things pioneered a formula that continues to work for Lorca. Instead of spending money on sets and costumes, it hires high-caliber actors to do top-notch work that they take to underserved communities in prisons, shelters and the like before settling into some legitimate stage. Sonya Berlovitz's costumes also are noteworthy.
I saw "Winter's Tale" at the Salvation Army Harbor Light Center in Minneapolis with the houselights up and with clients walking in and out. Things that would be distractions in a traditional theater add to the ambience and give the actors a challenge to be in the moment and hold our focus.
This cast does so with ease in "Winter's Tale," not least because they are able to find the wit, passion and romance in the language and do so with honesty and feeling. That's certainly true of the principals. Epp is powerful and earthy in his scalding performance. Cage makes us feel the depths to which Hermione has been wronged in her emotive turn. Craven gives us a Polixenes who is somewhat bewildered by the turn of events.
But it's not just the principals of the first act who are strong. Other performers have nice moments, especially in the second act, including Stephanie Bertumen and Christopher Jenkins as smitten couple Perdita and Florizel and Mo Perry as the lowly Shepherd.
If actor Karen Wiese-Thompson is at risk of being typecast, it's because she's so good at playing shady tricksters. She depicted a Chicago gangster in "Guys and Dolls" at the Guthrie this summer. Here she totally inhabits pickpocket Autolycus, delivering not just with confidence, but with the flawless cunning of a confidence man.
There also are nice turns by William Sturdivant as king's aide Camillo and Cristina Florencia Castro in a variety of smaller roles in a "Winter's Tale" whose messages resonate.