With its dizzying brew of tragedy, comedy, palace intrigue, pastoral tomfoolery, and cameos by a marauding bear and a living statue, The Winter’s Tale often gives the impression that Shakespeare is taunting earnest theater types from beyond the grave. Though the Bard’s tricky work can often defy adaptation, director Rebecca Taichman meets and exceeds the challenge with her thoughtful, visually stunning adaptation for Shakespeare Theatre Company.
The tale of tragic loss and triumphant reunion largely runs through the chimerical performance of Broadway and TV vet Mark Harelik. Harelik captures lightning in a bottle as cursed King Leontes (which is only half his challenging dual workload). He careens about the stage with jutted jaw, straining neck, and wild eyes, searching for shelter from the storm of his own making. So convincing is Harelik in his descent into madness that I was convinced he was actually going to throttle his wife Hermione, played with steely-eyed conviction by the statuesque Hannah Yelland.
Harelik pulls off a startling transition at the midway point, pivoting cleanly from imperious king to raggedy grifter. As the buffoonish Autolycus, Harelik casts off royal trappings to chew some scenery while telling dirty jokes, singing off key, and robbing kindly Bohemians blind. It’s an inspired bit of double casting by Taichman and Casting Director Laura Stanczyk, but Harelik’s over the top rogue often overshadows the rest of the action, much like Bohemia’s pop-up book farm scenery. However, the overreach of his vaudeville act is tempered by his moving redemption as Leontes later in the play.
Harelik is supported by a polished cast, including fellow Broadway vets Yelland and Sean Arbuckle, who animates King Polixenes with smooth charm and kind eyes. Local favorites Nancy Robinette and Tom Story routinely wrest the spotlight from the principals with their well documented comedic talents. Robinette adds a dry sarcastic foil as a veteran courtesan unafraid to speak truth to power, and she later lightens things up as a foul mouthed female shepherd. Story makes his mark in the second act as a young shepherd/clown whose naïveté produces hilarious results.
Taichman and her artistic team configure the cast in a series of striking tableaus that memorably evoke two vastly different kingdoms. Set designer Christine Jones dresses Leontes’ court of Sicilia in red velvet curtains, clean lines, and polished white, while outfitting the pastoral landscape of neighboring Bohemia with a cutout zoo straight from an animal picture book. The giant butterflies and dummy sheep are a bit much, but there’s no mistaking the contrast in the two cultures. Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind makes several important contributions, heightening the tension of Leontes’ meltdown with stark blue spotlight while lending a more relaxed air to Bohemia with soothing greens.
The Winter’s Tale
Closes June 23, 2013
450 7th Street NW
2 hours, 40 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $55 – $95
Tuesdays thru Sundays
And the bear scene, the true test of a Shakespeare director’s mettle. Somehow, between costumer David Zinn’s giant bear suit and Taichman’s stage directions, we are treated to a sequence that manages to straddle the line of genuine menace and comedy. Even within an oeuvre populated by fairies, sorcerers, and donkey-headed sods, for some reason the “Exit, pursued by a bear” moment sticks out like a sore thumb. Taichman has just decided to have fun with it, and the show is better for it.
I won’t ruin it for prospective audience members, but the unveiling of the living statue is so beautifully staged, you’d think you were watching an HBO promo. Every detail, down to the lightbulbs illuminating the stage, ties into the breathtaking final image. It’s enough to make one forgive Shakespeare’s silly, Deux Ex Machina ending, which always seems to come from precisely nowhere.
Taichman’s production of The Winter’s Tale is like a pretty good song set within a great music video. While you may not agree with all of the spoken content or narrative decisions, you can’t help but admire the beautiful, lovingly crafted imagery of an assured director’s vision.
The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare . Directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman . Hannah Yelland, Mark Harelik, Brent Carver, Sean Arbuckle, Todd Bartels, Nancy Robinette, Tom Story, Ted van Griethuysen and Heather Wood . Set Design: Christine Jones . Costume Design: David Zinn . Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind . Sound Design: Matt Tierney . Composer ; Nico Muhly . Music Director: Ellis Ludwig-Leone . Choreographer: Camille A. Brown is the Choreographer . Vocal coach: Gillian Lane-Plescia is the Vocal Coach . Dramaturgs: Carrie Hughes and Drew Lichtenberg . Assistant Director: Jenny Lord . Production Stage Manager: Alison Cote . Assistant Stage Manager: Elizabeth Clewley. Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company . Reviewed by Ben Demers
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