This play is filed with his comedies, but some have called it a romance and some just call it a problem since the first half is an intense psychological drama that suddenly turns hilarious in the second. Director Rebecca Taichman is undaunted and chooses to highlight the contrast by casting actors in dual, very different roles. The abrupt transition in Act Two defies credulity for a moment, but a major theme of the play is the very thin line between tragedy and total farce that Shakespeare walks so well. At the end of the day, it’s the Bard by one of the best Shakespearean companies in the country. You really can’t go wrong.
This is a story about love, but the love of family and commitment and the trust it takes. It’s also Shakespeare, so it has to have a King accusing his pregnant wife of adultery, the oracle of Delphi, several drunk shepherds, a King dressed up as a drunk shepherd, and a bear. Literally, there’s a bear, in perhaps one of the most famous stage directions in theater: Exit, pursued by a bear. Delightfully, Taichman takes that seriously.
For all the shenanigans, this is a production with a small ensemble of only nine actors covering all roles in a bow to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, for Shakespeare’s company purportedly numbered nine. That said, it’s a refreshingly modern production, and I don’t mean that just because everyone is dressed in suits, but rather that Taichman didn’t bother with big set changes and focused on the language and the relationships, which is important in this play without the big sword fights. In fact, the characters summarize much of their life, like they really are just telling a tale, and she makes it work.
The set by Christine Jones is simple with two double doors at the back of a Victorian style drawing room set with sleek black furniture. The central piece is a chandelier of ordinary lamps. The lighting by Christopher Akerlind did a lot of the heavy lifting in dramatic transitions between scenes and in the completely different feel of the second act. Costume Designer David Zinn had to be similarly versatile first with dapper grey suits and gorgeous dresses on the gorgeous Hannah Yelland (Hermione). In Act Two in Bohemia, the pastoral setting means men in hunting gear, plaid, and a great sparkly pink cape for the rogue. Several characters transform from one role to another onstage, which also requires clever costuming.
It is impressive how well all of the elements gel together. Taichman’s vision for this play is clear and everything supports it from dramatic lighting to the live music composed by Nico Muhly. Stephen Feigenbaum directed the music and played piano, hidden at the back of the stage. He and two other musicians, Anne Ament and Douglas Dubé, did get to wander onstage, especially as minstrels in the second act for the battle of the songs.
The actors took the clever staging and made it into art. Mark Harelik (Leontes/Autolycus) owns the stage in these two roles that could not be more different. This may be the first time these two roles have been paired in modern times: the mad, tortured tyrant and the practical, hilarious swindler. In one role, he must bear the very serious consequences of his irrational jealousy and mourns for decades, in the other he sings “Pantaloons of Doom.”
Nancy Robinette (Paulina/Drunk Shepherdess) also plays to wonderful contrast as a foil both for the king and the clown. Paulina is an unusual role, a woman as consort and conscience of the King, and she is a force to rival Harelik. She brings that force to her other role in one of the raunchiest speeches in Shakespeare, which is really saying something. Scholars argue whether this is the first known mention of dildos in the English canon.
Hannah Yelland (Hermione) has a lovely stage presence and a powerful command of Shakespeare. There is another hero in literature named Hermione these days, but she is a worthy predecessor.
Tom Story (Cleomenes/Young Shepherd) and Ted van Griethuysen (Antigonus/Old Shepherd) are delightful in the long tradition of ridiculous comic duos, though they are not much as shepherds. One declares early on, “Oh, just let my sheep go.” Brent Carver (Camillo) is gentle and subtle, mining every word as he manipulates all behind the scenes. Sean Arbuckle (Polixenes) only plays one role, but since he’s in disguise for all of Act Two, he got to stretch his comic chops as well. As the sane king, he is serious and stately and in disguise he’s just plain funny.
Heather Wood (Mamillius/Time/Perdita) and Todd Bartels (Dion/Florizel) have the job of being constantly head over heels in love and generally adorable, which takes more energy than you might think to summon charisma, as these two actors are able, instead of cliché. Both of them glow.
At the end, the choice of comedy and drama doesn’t matter. As Leontes said, we fight all our lives in “the noble combat between joy and sorrow.” This is no problem play, but it is a challenge as the tragedy and horrors of the first act that Shakespeare is just a little too good at give way to the farce and dues ex machina of the second. The challenge is no match for Shakespeare Theatre Company, which succeeds completely with this talented ensemble stretching themselves in dual roles and every moment of lighting, music, and costume carefully aimed to enhance and delight.
This is Shakespeare and nobody does it better than Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Running Time: Three hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
The Winter’s Tale plays through June 23, 2013 at The Lansburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.