‘The Winter’s Tale’ at HalfMad Theatre

Just a couple of blocks north of the now bustling H-Steet corridor in Northeast Washington, tucked away on Florida Avenue, you’ll find one of Capital Fringe’s newest venues: The Trinidad Theatre. If you can locate the sign that says “bar open” (the only marking), you make a left turn, and discover a surprisingly hip hangout that can only be described as “fringe-chic.” There are works of art on display and for sale by local artists, and music like David Bowie’s “Suffragette City” blasts loudly, giving it an up-beat, retro feel. In one of the multiple found-spaces that the furnished lobby leads into, HalfMad Theatre’s adaptation of The Bard’s The Winters Tale plays this weekend and next. For those that haven’t yet been acquainted with this up-and-coming company – The Winters Tale and HalfMad Theatre Company are as enchanting a find as the space they occupy.

Emily Marsh (Hermione), Connor J. Hogan (Leontes).  Photo by Seamus Miller.
Emily Marsh (Hermione), Connor J. Hogan (Leontes). Photo by Seamus Miller.

The Winters Tale is a “problem play” for a reason: it is a harrowing tragedy that gives birth to over-the-top comedy. The play seems to jam in almost every convention Shakespeare ever used into one script, and adds in a bear. It starts with a jealous King Leontes (Connor Hogan) who imprisons his wife (Emily Marsh) and exiles his child over an affair he later learns never happened, and ends more than sixteen years later, with three people dead, and the exiled child (Paige O’Malley) returned home.

Elizabeth Dapo, who is both at the helm of The Winters Tale and the Artistic Director of HalfMad, brilliantly consolidates this crazy script into a concise and inventive adaptation that focuses on love, regret, and time-lost. The show feels modern and theatrical for the first half, fun and farcical for the second, and somehow manages to tie the story together in an ably staged, thought-provoking final scene. This is the true achievement of this production; Dapo’s creative genius and her genuine connection to the script come together to turn “problem” into “poignancy.” She eliminates characters like “The Oracle of Delphi” and replaces them with the personification of time, and allows her characters to experience realization and regret. This is a piece that will stick with you and affect you, rather than one that will puzzle you.

Photo by Seamus Miller.
Photo by Seamus Miller.

Dapo stages this piece neatly. The adaptation, though, is sometimes quicker than she can keep up with, and that unfortunately leaves some awkward silences. Her choices to bring the script to its extremes – disturbing at points, and reminiscent of the Marx Brothers at others – are bold, and serve its purpose, for the most part, well.

The technical elements (all credited to the company) are sparse and effective, and should inspire any director who is challenged to do what is considered a “large-scale” production on a small budget. Tree stumps double as stools, great effects are made out of nothing but cheap cloth, and the violin, guitar, and kazoo-playing actors don’t hurt the atmosphere, either. There are some questionable choices – a clearly fake, party-store, glossy-white wig at the physical center of the play’s most intense scene, to name one – but very little pulls focus from HalfMad’s quality work.

Justin Mohay, Paige O’Malley with puppet: Mamillius. Photo by Seamus Miller.
Justin Mohay, Paige O’Malley, and Mamillius (puppet). Photo by Seamus Miller.

The cast is truly an ensemble – they work together every step of the show, and have a great chemistry. Connor Hogan’s Leontes is deliciously bubbling over with insecurity, but lacks a power and intensity desperately needed for a man willing to send his own children to death. Emily Marsh plays both Hermione, the Queen of Sicilia, and The Clown. As Hermione, she delivers a resounding final speech, and she shines brilliantly as The Clown. She plays, bounces, and dances like no one is watching – and consequently, all eyes turn to her. It makes one wonder if this role, unique to Dapo’s adaptation, was created with Marsh in mind.

The show’s real gem, though, is Frank Mancino, who plays Antigonus and The Shepard, and does indeed exit pursued by a bear. His absolute understanding of the text is refreshing; his connection to the words empowers him to be a dynamic force in The Winters Tale. Mancino’s characters are wholly sympathetic when need be, and he never fails to breathe life beyond the boards into those whom he plays.

HalfMad Theatre may be just that, though they’ve shown that they have a method, and it works. Elizabeth Dapo’s adaptation of The Winter’s Tale is one you’ll want to see even if you’ve seen or read this play a hundred times. It’s fresh, contemporary-yet-classical, and not quite like anything else you’ll see in DC. I have a feeling that’s just how HalfMad Theatre wants it.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.

The Winters Tale plays through March 29, 2015 at HalfMad Theatre performing at The Trinidad Theatre – 1358 Florida Avenue, NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

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