Bugeater Theatre, at the Second Unitarian Church of Chicago.
At dinner before Bugeater's opening-night performance, my friend Michael, a corporate attorney, turned the dry details of municipal-bond defeasance into an engrossing tale of overzealous buy-outs and ever-changing tax regulations. With a multimillion-dollar deal hanging over his head, the story clearly meant something to him.
Would that I could say the same for the cast of Bugeater's The Winter's Tale, over whose heads very little seems to hang. Jim Johnson's cut-to-the-chase adaptation, which runs a bit over an hour and a half, pares Shakespeare's fantastical folktale of death, faith, and rebirth to the barest essentials of its plot, leaving the actors little to do except keep things moving. In the unkindest cut of all, the wandering pickpocket minstrel Autolycus, who lights up much of Shakespeare's text with his irreverence, is completely omitted in favor of an invented chorus figure who literally explains several of the adaptation's more conspicuous gaps.
Johnson's impulse to strip away the excessive artifice that chokes so many Shakespeare productions is a smart one. Shakespeare's vivid language needs little embellishment, and Johnson's bare-bones staging, with actors appearing on perfectly empty platforms, could act as a kind of blank screen upon which the imagination might project the play's magical reality in the richest detail. But by directing his cast with such unromantic efficiency, Johnson never transcends the sterility of the church rec room in which the play is staged, and this production remains as impersonal as the bank of bare white bulbs that illuminates it.