Suddenly and immovably convinced his wife has been unfaithful, a jealous king’s actions result in the death of his queen and son, the abandonment of his infant daughter, and a cheery start to The Winter’s Tale, one of Shakespeare’s last works. Fast forward 16 years with the help of Time, the abandoned princess, a good-natured shepherd, and two royal families must now contend with her rediscovered noble blood. In their final production in DC, The Wheel Theatre Company’s The Winter’s Tale, directed by Jack Read, looks at the powers of love, faith, and time in the seasons of our lives.
A hodge-podge play running the entire gambit of emotions and plot twists, this distilled version of The Winter’s Tale leaned into its irreconcilable nature. In the more dramatic moments, Lee Havlicek as King Leontes and Elizabeth Ung as Queen Hermione focused on the weight of their words and slow, sparse movements to let the trauma unfolding soak into the silence. Contrastingly, Maria Simpkins as Paulina delivered a powerful range of passion, venom, and courage in her soliloquies that socked me square in the chest.
As the play turned from Winter into Spring, Aron Spellane as Antigonus dramatically and comically battled with a bear, setting off the more romantic plot points. Ung’s noble stoicism turned to an overemphatically jolly Shepard as she shook with elation at the relationship between his wise daughter, Perdita (Mackenzie Larson) and the devoted Prince Florizel (Shaquille Stewart). Even conflicted King Polixenes (Colton Needles) and faithful Camillo (Axandre Oge), disguised to attend the sheep shearing in attempts to break up Perdita and Florizel’s relationship, added to the lightness of the later acts.
Above and beyond my favorites, however, were the loony moments of Autolycus (Moira Todd). Playing a character designed to jolt you–sometimes absurdly–out of the more heart-wrenching moments, Todd took her character-driven responsibilities to heart. Sprinkled throughout the production with fiendish glee and sprightly skill, Todd found a playfulness in each of her lines that propelled the production further into mirth than some of the best Dogberrys, Pucks, or indeed Autolycuses that I’ve seen in a long time.
On the Creative side of the production, once again Jack Read’s direction played with all sides of the small black box, making for a far more visceral experience than is possible in the larger spaces one traditionally associates with Shakespeare. I also appreciated the production’s creative and fluid costuming by Grace Eda Baker, Elizabeth Floyd, and Jack Read, which allowed the actors to move easily from one persona to the next in a way that seemed both distinct and natural. Another standout for me was the use of music by Moira Todd, Shaquille Stewart, and Elizabeth Ung to modernize and underscore the expositional sections of the piece.
What I like most about The Wheel Theatre Company productions is that they aren’t afraid to take risks and look at texts from different angles in order to create a piece of theater that a modern audience can connect to in a new way. This production of The Winter’s Tale was exactly that. While there were pacing issues (understandable given the task of condensing the normally five-act, 2.5-hour play into a 100-minute one-act), they still showcased the off-kilter nature of one of Shakespeare’s most topsy-turvy pieces. Filled with tragedy, comedy, romance, and tomfoolery, this Winter’s Tale moves to the steady march of Time ushering us all forward.
Running Time: 100 minutes, with no intermission.