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U.Va. Drama delivers a refreshing spin on a classic Shakespearean tale

“16 Winters” offers a delightful, profound exploration of power and isolation

<p>Drama graduate student Christian O'Neill as King Leo stands with the ghost of his dead son, played by first-year College student Katherine Haines, getting his feelings out through song.&nbsp;</p>

Drama graduate student Christian O'Neill as King Leo stands with the ghost of his dead son, played by first-year College student Katherine Haines, getting his feelings out through song. 

From April 21 to April 30, U.Va. Drama delivered a captivating, thought-provoking production of Mary Elizabeth Hamilton’s “16 Winters, or the Bear’s Tale.” With impressive sets, engaging characters and stellar performances from the cast, the production was a sparkly success. 

Directed by educator and actor Kate Eastwood Norris, “16 Winters” gives a glimpse into the 16-year period that passes in the middle of William Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.” 

Queen Her of Sicilia, played by Drama graduate student Cortney Lowinski, is assumed dead after her husband, Leo, played by Drama graduate student Christian O’Neill, accuses her of infidelity and attempts to murder her and their son. She is not dead, however — instead, she flees to a remote cabin in the woods with her handmaiden, Pauly, played by third-year College student Charlotte Gimlin, to wait until it is safe to return to Sicilia. “16 Winters” takes audiences along on Her and Pauly’s journey as they wait in isolation. 

Performed in the Drama Department’s Culbreth Theater, “16 Winters” explores modern power dynamics, toxic masculinity and time through Shakespeare’s historical setting, in a show complete with songs, jokes and an examination of human nature from an animal’s perspective. 

Her’s struggles to maintain a positive attitude in the cabin may seem familiar to many viewers, as it closely resembles the experience of most Americans during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lowinski delivered an engaging and earnest performance as Her — her frustration and fear for the future as time ticks on resonated with audiences who have experienced similar isolation over the past couple years.

When Her decides to finally leave her cabin and flee to Bohemia, she meets an eccentric, socially-conscious group of Instagram-obsessed teens — placing the show squarely in the present in their modern clothing and hashtag-obsessed slang. This choice gave a sense of universality to the themes of the show — it helped the audience understand that despite the age of its source material, everyone can learn something from “16 Winters.” 

Interwoven throughout the show are bits of wisdom from an unlikely character — a Bear, played by Drama graduate student Haydn Haring, who lurks outside of Her and Pauly’s cabin and states the rules of different aspects of life, such as courting a mate or catching a fish to eat in a thundering voice and impressive command of the stage. Frequent stares from the Bear and Haring’s wild, jarring facial expressions forced the audience to confront their own animalistic tendencies.

Back in Sicilia, Leo is visited by the ghost of his dead son, played by first-year College student Katherine Haines, forcing him to confront the guilt brought on by his violence. Leo frequently expresses his anguish through song throughout the play, often picking up a guitar to belt about his anger or shame. The songs kept audiences engaged in the plot and brought another dimension to the production. O’Neill brought both an impressive voice and nuanced acting to each song, striking an impressive balance between humor and anguish. O’Neill cited Leo’s complexity as a reason for auditioning for “16 Winters.” 

“He’s very stuck, at least in the beginning, and to see someone be that stuck and to have no idea how to get out of it is really interesting,” O’Neill said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. 

“16 Winters” explores themes that may have been left unexplored by Shakespeare’s version — it examines the gender dynamics between its two main characters and the toxic masculinity behind Leo’s jealousy.  

“Leo’s quite disagreeable,” O’Neill said. “He's kind of a rage monster a little bit. And so that's both something that I can kind of relate to a little bit and a challenge.” 

In a moving monologue from Her, the queen expresses the vexation that comes with simply existing as a woman. Lowinksi moves expertly between heart and hurt, balancing several humorous beats with the rather heavy nature of the monologue. Here, the queen’s feelings are at the forefront of the story in a way they were never were in Shakespeare’s original piece. 

The Drama department’s staging of “16 Winters” was simple, yet captivating. Even when the scenes changed to a different location, the set and actors in the previous scene remained on the stage, amplifying the connection between each of the concurrent plots. One moment, the audience found themselves in the midst of a dark, eerie winter forest — the next moment, they were at the foot of the King’s throne. The lights dim, and yet again, the scene changed to a cozy cabin full of Bohemian hipsters. The dynamic way in which scenes melt into each other envelope the audience in the show’s narrative. 

“16 Winters” performed the final show of its two-weekend run April 30. After a lonely, troublesome couple of years, this clever show with relatable characters and a resonant message was just what the University community needed. “16 Winters” wraps up the 2021-2022 season for the University Department of Drama in a beautiful and important way.