Washington, DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company is well known for its remarkable talent, fearlessness, and ingenuity in reproducing the Bard of Avon’s plays for a contemporary audience. The Winter’s Tale constitutes a particular challenge, because its tone shifts between the third and fourth acts between tragedy and comedy (the reason it is sometimes grouped with Shakespeare’s “problem plays”). STC’s production, now playing at the Lansburgh Theatre, is a no-holds-barred approach to both ends of the emotional spectrum, a moving and occasionally fantastical journey through the trials and tribulations of friendship, love, and magic.
…in all its beautiful, competent glory
The story is as follows: Leontes, king of Sicilia (Mark Harelik), becomes convinced that his best friend Polixenes, king of Bohemia (Sean Arbuckle), is having an affair with his pregnant wife Hermione (Hannah Yelland). Impotent rage ensues, at which point Hermione is imprisoned until she can prove her innocence, and Leontes orders his servant Camillo (Brent Carver) to assassinate Polixenes. Instead, the servant and the Bohemian king flee back to the shores of Bohemia, while Hermione gives birth to a girl. Leontes ignores the Delphic oracle and continues to accuse his wife of adultery, and Hermione apparently dies. The infant princess is spirited off to Bohemia with Antigonus (Ted van Griethuysen), who promptly gets murdered by a bear, and she is then discovered by a shepherd (again, Ted van Griethuysen) and his young son (Tom Story). Sixteen years pass, and young Perdita (Heather Wood) falls in love with Polixenes’ son Florizel (Todd Bartels), who is then banished from the kingdom and forced to flee to Sicilia. Surprisingly enough, despite a gruesome bear attack, this play actually has a happy ending.
While The Winter’s Tale is nominally a comedy, there are some truly devastating parts, all beautifully conveyed by a very talented cast. Carver’s soliloquy, for instance, when faced with the possibility of murder, was a sad, moving moment in the midst of the play’s early chaos. Harelik’s Leontes spent most of the early play nearly apoplectic with rage, making his transformation into a devout penitent downright stunning in contrast. Griethuysen and Story are fantastic comic relief. Story’s naivete and effervescence in particular is a breath of fresh air against the tragic elements of the first three acts. The interaction between Bartels and Wood was filled with a sweetness that made up for the sorrow exhibited between Yelland and Harelik.
Director Rebecca Taichman has envisioned and achieved a certain magic with this production that may be impossible to accurately describe. There are no blackouts–transitions between scenes are done in a pale blue light, to lilting music delivered live from backstage. The cast carries huge butterflies and dragonflies on sticks. In the midst of a curtain of lights shaped like bells, a statue comes to life. A bear (not a live one, but a surprise nonetheless) clambers across the stage in compliance with Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction: Exit pursued by a bear.
The only comment I would make regarding this production is that the double casting (all characters in Bohemia are played by actors who play characters in Sicilia and vice versa) is occasionally confusing, but for the most part the magnificent range of the actors (Harelik’s turn as the roguish Autolycus is wonderful) keeps it from being a major impediment.
Running Time: approximately 2 hours 40 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
The Winter’s Tale, in all its beautiful, competent glory, is playing at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theater through June 23, 2013. Tickets can be purchased at online.