‘Winter’s Tale’ — Shakespeare’s Problem Play Nearly Solved by Loving Hands


Hannah Yelland as Hermione, Mark Harelik as Leontes, Sean Arbuckle as Polixenes in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of ‘The Winter’s Tale.’ Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

It’s a tragedy, and a comedy. It’s magical, like Midsummer Night’s Dream; pastoral, with hints of As You Like It; everything, save the death of a stray son, works out in the end. The first half risks sending you screaming into the night; the second half is so slight in places it might  blow away. And the denouement — well that’s from another planet altogether. Somehow, a dead wife — sculpted in stone and then brought to life — brings smiles and sighs, not hoots, at least in the stunning production currently on view at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Have you ever seen A Winter’s Tale? Forgive the plot summary but see if you can follow this hot mess. It’s the story of Leontes, insanely jealous King of Sicily, who sacrifices his family when he suspects, for no apparent reason, that his wife Hermione (the luminous Hannah Yelland) is bedding his boyhood friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia.

This isn’t the kind of jealousy nurtured by an evil courtier, as in Othello, but rather, it emerges toxic and full blown. It so dominates the first half of the play that it’s hard to stay seated and watch the cancerous emotions consume the king.

Mark Harelik, with a hooked nose that leads his face into trouble, is the irrational monarch. He banishes the baby he assumes to be his wife’s bastard (we haven’t mentioned that she is glowingly, ripely pregnant), induces the death by sadness of his young son, and causes his wife to “swoon” and die, completing a royal flush of his loved ones. The king’s trusted advisor Camillo flees with Polixenes back to Bohemia — and Leontes is left to mourn his misbegotten life. We know, although he does not, that his infant daughter, Perdita, has not been killed, but rather left in the forest to be rescued by an old shepherd, thanks to the mercy of the Sicilian noblewoman Paulina and her husband Antigonus.

After intermission, we’re in a forest sixteen years later. Perdita has grown up to be a beauty, and in an ironic twist, she and Florizel, the son of Polixenes, are sweethearts. The old shepherd is living well on the money he found along with the baby, and Camillo, who fled Leontes’ court with Polixenes, yearns to go home. We meet another new character in the forest, an unreconstructed scalawag named Autolycus — a drunk, who robs his way through the merry bunch there.

Aside from the couple of characters who cross between stories at this point – what could possibly connect these worlds? That’s where director Rebecca Taichman’s concept shines.

Let’s step back a moment – anyone producing this play has a number of options to make it into a satisfying whole. A familiar solution is to present it as a fairy tale — so that the outsized emotions of the characters and the not-quite-realistic events and the two mismatched settings all fit into that storybook framework. Another solution would be to wink at the audience, saying in effect — “we all agree that this isn’t quite real, but suspend your disbelief with us and we’ll take you someplace emotionally pleasing.” But Taichman goes still further — with a tactic I can’t know is completely her own, but which seems like a master stroke.

She has the actors double in the two halves of the story — so that the actor who plays Leontes also appears as the rascally Autolycus, alleviating our anger and disgust at the king’s actions; the dead son of Leontes becomes his lovely teenaged daughter, erasing the pain we felt at the boy’s death; the king’s loving friend Antigonus (who has been eaten by a bear as he fell victim to Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction) is played by the same actor who portrays the old shepherd… and on and on.

The two inconsistent, incompatible halves suddenly become one play, even before the two worlds meet back in the king’s court, where Leontes is introduced to the statue of his wife, which then comes incredibly to life (or perhaps she has been alive all along). Magical realism, or realistic magic, the play ends with the weddings, music and mirth of any Shakespearean comedy, but with the darkness of its awful first act not completely dispelled.

Director Rebecca Taichman has come a long way toward taming the untameable Winter’s Tale.

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