Long considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” Folger Theatre’s production of “The Winter’s Tale” embraces the discordance of the plot elements and takes us on an invigorating romp from unfathomable tragedy to slapstick comedy and its inexplicably happy ending. Director Tamilla Woodard chooses to expose the monstrous and unfounded jealousy of Leontes (Hadi Tabbal in a taught, volcanic performance) as proxy for “the growing paranoia plus compulsive circular reasoning” increasingly found in American society today. Although the pacing is excellent, the performance is at first slow to engage the audience. Perhaps it is because the play’s dependence on Greek mythology is incongruent with the unspecific, yet vaguely contemporary time period of this production. Once the timeless themes of obsession, jealousy, and maternal love are unleashed, the action becomes fully engaging.
…completely captures the spirit of Shakespeare’s rustic characters…fun!
Opening with the birthday party of Mamillius (Richard Bradford, alternating with Clarence Michael Payne – Read their ‘A Quick 5’ interview here), the eight-year-old son of Leontes and Hermione (a passionate Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), we are drawn into the kingdom of Sicilia. Two-story, royal blue double doors bordered with gold are centered beneath a room faced with plexiglass in Raul Abrego, Jr.’s dazzling set. Likely a safeguard for the very young actors using that high space, the transparent wall also allows us to feel like we are peaking into the child’s birthday games and into innocence itself. Royal guests are greeted just below that room, including the King of Bohemia, Polixenes (a charming Drew Kopas), a special friend to both Leontes and Hermione.
When Polixenes says he must soon leave despite Leontes entreaty to stay longer, Hermione coaxes him to stay for a bit. This is the source of the tragedy of the play. Leontes wildly jumps to the conclusion that Polixenes is having an affair with the obviously very pregnant Queen. Much has been made of Leontes’ sudden madness amid Hermione’s faithfulness, yet here there is just enough hint of mutual attraction between Hermione and Polixenes (the slow touch of her hand on his) to cast a moment of reasonable doubt. Horrified by Camillo’s reassurance that Polixenes stays longer to satisfy Hermione as well as the king, Leontes responds with “Satisfy? The entreaties of our most gracious mistress? Satisfy? Let that suffice.” It is a masterful moment for Tabbal. Even if the flirtation is real, nothing justifies Leontes’ extreme response, sentencing Hermione to prison where she gives birth and dies of grief.
Paulina (the ever-commanding Kate Eastwood Norris) takes charge after Hermione’s demise by bringing the baby Perdita to the King. Leontes nearly has Hermione’s newborn daughter killed, but after briefly gazing on the infant’s face he settles for exiling her to the wild shores of Bohemia and whatever fate may befall her. The peril of this exile is underscored by the death of Antigonus, Paulina’s husband, who delivers the child to Bohemia only to be attacked by a bear. Fate has other plans for the child, who is found and raised by a shepherd.
Act Two speeds ahead sixteen years and completely changes in tone, rhythm, and mood. Those who return late from the intermission will pay dearly if they miss one moment of Reza Salazar’s charmingly impish performance as Autolycus the peddler. He completely captures the spirit of Shakespeare’s rustic characters and is a highlight of the production. The froth of Act Two is a jarring, but a welcome surprise. Delightful singing by Salazar and the cast combines with line dancing to situate the action in a decidedly less regal domain of Bohemia. Here we meet Perdita (Kayleandra White), the long-lost daughter of Hermione, and her beau, Florizel (Jonathan Del Palmer), none other than Polixenes’ son. Paulina unveils a “statue” of Hermione to chide Leontes before the queen comes “back to life” and rejoins the king and meets her now grown daughter. “You precious winners all” exults Paulina, referring to herself as an “old turtle.”
Needless to say, those characters still alive at the play’s end are happy. There are many unanswered questions. Why does Paulina leave the infant Perdita with the apparently crazy Leontes? Why does Hermoine return to life but not Mamillius? Why does Paulina seem to recover from the “death” of Hermione so quickly? “What’s past is past,” she says. Is the Hermione-turned-to-marble-statue an act of God or a ruse? Problem play, indeed, but fun!
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.
Advisory: Contains smoke and haze.
“The Winters’s Tale” runs through December 17, 2023 at Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003. Tickets are $20-$84 and are available online or by calling the Box Office at 202.544-7077. This production is part of the “Shakespeare Everywhere Festival” which runs through December 31, 2023. The Folger is joining artistic and cultural institutions across the District of Columbia in producing 12 Shakespeare shows in 12 weeks.