“The Winter’s Tale”, that strange, not so well known late play of Shakespeare’s, gets its comedy classification by default. It can’t be a tragedy, because even though King Leontes brings all his suffering upon himself, there are no dead bodies left lying around. It isn’t a history play because – it isn’t. So it must be a comedy.
Such failure to conform to a dramatic mold is the reason “problem plays” became a thing, and “The Winter’s Tale” meets the criteria. Leontes’ wild psychological shifts could give a normal audience whiplash. There’s a touch of tragedy in the sudden death of young Mamillius (played by a perfectly bewitching puppet); there’s comedy in places you didn’t think comedy could live; and the resolution and traditional happy ending depend on magic. So it’s a “problem play.”
For this reviewer, however, there’s no problem at all. Director Aaron Posner and the cast and technical crew of the production now at Folger have presented one of the most solidly unified pieces of performance art I have ever encountered. From the quick changing cast members who play multiple roles – and multiple musical instruments – to the fluid rhythms of scene, mood, and time change, what is actually two hours and forty minutes with intermission feels timeless, almost other worldly.
Luciana Stecconi’s scene design sets the tone. Enormous snowy blue curlicues create a romantic, wintry frame for what is traditionally a tale to be told by a fireside, and stacked trunks and chairs do on-the-spot service for scene changes. Composer and music director, Liz Filios, fills the small Folger theatre from pre-show to end with music that weaves itself into the story, accents moments, grieves with the grief-stricken, and celebrates when things turn joyous. And it’s quite beautiful. I’d buy a CD of it if I could.
Eric Hissom, a reliable star on regional stages, stands out not only as the Storyteller who draws us into the play, but as Leontes’ faithful courtier, Camillo, also Antigonus, “and others.” His straight forward but delicate sense of timing and comedy communicate thoughts that are little more than subtle movements, yet land fully realized.
The role of King Leontes of Sicilia has built-in problems, and it’s to the great credit of Michael Tisdale that he solves them with such skillful naturalism. Leontes is charged with going insane – not over a period of years – but days, or perhaps moments when he decides on the evidence of thin air that his pregnant wife, Hermione, has been having an affair with his best friend, Polixenes, the King of Bohemia. Tisdale must show us a Leontes that is just fragile enough to be moved to extremes by the phantoms of his mind, doubles down on his error, and when Fate and the Oracle punish him with the truth, go into a contrition and self-loathing equal to his original flaw. All of this he achieves.
The wronged Hermione, played with warm dignity by Katie deBuys, is a tragic figure in her downfall, and Aldo Billingslea as King Polixenes presents a towering personage both in friendship to Leontes and later, as his implacable enemy. And we should all have a friend and champion like the formidable Paulina (Grace Gonglewski) who fearlessly confronts Leontes and the men of his court – and still has room for forgiveness when he cannot forgive himself.
Comical rustics abound, but the gypsy thief, Autolycus (Kimberly Gilbert), who never did an honest act on purpose, steals her own scenes. This winsome character manages to make the delicate art of pocket picking almost admirable – as long as it isn’t our pockets.
And then there’s love. No Shakespeare comedy is complete without it. Perdita (Daven Ralston), the abandoned infant daughter of Hermione, found and raised by shepherds, becomes the unwitting means for reconciliation with a father and king she never knew. Naturally she attracts Florizell (Drew Drake), the disguised son of the disapproving Bohemian king, and their attempts to plight their troth in secret set up an intense moment of humor followed by even more intense conflict.
Without revealing the supernatural close, an element which is unique in all of Shakespeare, suffice it to say that what could be written off as improbable absurdity pulls us further into that magical and willing suspension of disbelief.
In lesser hands, “The Winter’s Tale” is indeed a problem play; but with an ensemble as tight and intuitive as this one, it warms up the evening.
WANT TO GO?
What: “The Winter’s Tale”
Where: Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 E. Capitol St. SE, Washington, D.C.
Call: (202) 544-7077 or visit www.folger.edu/theatre
Playing through April 22