“Exit, pursued by a bear.”
If there’s anything about The Winter’s Tale that audiences might know in advance, this–arguably the best stage direction ever penned–will be it.
The Winter’s Tale challenges audiences in a way altogether unique in Shakespeare’s canon, bringing together elements of comedy, tragedy, and fantasy into one script. More than any of his other works, The Winter’s Tale risks feeling like a mashup of two plays in one plot.
This also makes The Winter’s Tale an especially interesting choice for this summer’s Free for All–an annual production remounted from the past season, as entirely free of charge as the name suggests, that draws in audiences for a celebration to close out the summer and ring in the near-arrival of the new season. And this year, the Shakespeare Theatre Company has selected a play that even theatre aficionados seldom know.
In most of the Free for All’s 23 years, the Shakespeare Theatre Company has selected a well-known play for this run (recently titles like Hamlet, Much Ado, Twelfth Night)–but once in a while these odd-duck plays have crept into the mix. (In 2006, for example, they did Pericles. Even I know scarce little about that one–except that the Bard’s authorship is routinely questioned.) Which may be a brilliant plan: While audiences are guaranteed to swarm the theatre (because FREE), show them a play they haven’t read or seen. It’s Shakespearean awareness-building.
It begins with a royal accusation. King Leontes believes his lovely and hugely pregnant queen has been unfaithful. The baby, he thinks, is not his, and when she arrives, she’s escorted into the woods and left to die. Which naturally means we’ll see her again soon. Meanwhile Leontes confronts Hermione in a formal and humiliating trial, at which point an oracle makes plain that she’s committed no infidelity, and that the King will have no heir until his lost daughter is found. He cries foul play, but the prophecy comes true, leaving the king with neither son nor wife. The later part of the play is spent in the fields and meadows of Bohemia, where the king of that territory has dispatched two attendants in disguise to ascertain whether his son, the prince, is indeed courting a peasant.
The production is every bit as grand as it was when it first crossed the boards last winter. And if theatergoers will know anything else about The Winter’s Tale, the success of this production’s original run is likely it.
The design reflects the play’s duality of tone: chilly elegance and discordant whimsy. While it takes place outside of recognizable time or place, the aesthetic hints at the 1990s–clean, moneyed lines in architecture and attire; a pathological symmetry that begs to be disturbed once we’ve traded the regal for the pastoral in search of the abandoned princess. The stark monochrome chairs that line the sides of the stage in the first so appropriately topple by the second part of the performance, revealing mossy green underbellies. Large-scale cutout sheep and butterflies placed like stickers on the royal walls exclaim that this production does not resist the stylistic contrasts presented by the script. Many of the performers play multiple roles, granting them the opportunity to enact both serious and comedic characters. It can, and will, approach both with equal commitment and energy. And if it feels kind of like two plays stuck together, let it be two great plays.
At the risk of committing Shakespearean sacrilege, I have to say it’s almost a shame that the audience didn’t get to experience any of the sticker-book pastoral during the first half of the evening. Once Ted van Griethuysen, Tom Story, and Nancy Robinette traded in their slick tailored blacks and grays for lumberjack flannels and crayon colors, the audience was palpably more responsive.
Still, for a lesser-known Shakespeare play that admittedly doesn’t fit tidily into a comedy or tragedy box, only a few of the seats were left empty after intermission. Which is no small feat in Sidney Harman Hall’s 775-seat theatre.
The most stunning and memorable moment, of course, comes toward the end, when a statue of Hermione (played by the astonishingly still Hannah Yelland) animates and becomes the actual queen.
THE WINTER’S TALE
Closes August 31, 2014
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F Street NW
1 hour, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
The original production of The Winter’s Tale, which played last year both in DC and at the McCarter Theater Center in New Jersey, brought in rave reviews from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and (of course) DC Theatre Scene. Alan Paul’s reworking of the Rebecca Taichman production faithfully adheres to that much-lauded vision for the play.
The most notable departure from the 2013 production is the recasting of several roles, bringing in new cast members Michael Hayden (Leontes), Philip Goodwin (Camillo), Jenny Leona (Perdita/Maxmillius/Time), Sam Lilja (Florizel/Dion), and David Bishins (Polixenes) alongside reprise performances from Hannah Yelland (Hermione), Ted van Griethuysen (Antigonus/Old Shepherd), Tom Story (Cleomenes/Young Shepherd), and Nancy Robinette (Paulina/Bohemian Townsperson).
The new cast does well to align with their more practiced costars, although Yelland as Hermione, Robinette as Paulina, and the van Griethuysen/Story duo of Old and Young Shepherd must be cited as the standout performers. It is a stunning production of a play unique among Shakespeare’s work.
The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s annual summer Free for All has become a staple of late summer entertainment in DC. For those who haven’t tried it, there are several ways to snag your free tickets–in person, online via lottery, and by following the Shakespeare Theatre’s social media accounts. Regular season subscribers can skip the lines and grab their passes at will-call. Arrive early, though: All seats are general admission, so getting to the theatre just before curtain almost certainly guarantees you’ll be sitting in the rafters.
And if the outstanding performances, breathtaking design, and can’t-be-beat ticket price don’t provide enough motivation to snag a seat, I leave you with these words: Giant cutout sheep.
The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare . Directed by Alan Paul . Featuring The Winter’s Tale also includes David Bishins as Polixenes; Jenny Leona as Mamillius, Time and Perdita; and Sam Lilja as Dion/Florizel. The cast is rounded out by STC Affiliated Artists Nancy Robinette as Paulina and Bohemian Townsperson, Tom Story as Cleomenes and Young Shepherd (Clown) and Ted van Griethuysen as Antigonus and Old Shepherd . Set Design: Christine Jones . Costume Design: David Zinn . Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind’s design is adapted by Brian Jones for this remounted production. Sound Design: Matt Tierney . Composer: Nico Muhly . Choreography: Camille A. Brown’s original choreography is restaged by Tiffany L. Quinn . Vocal coach: Ellen O’Brien . Assistant director: Katherine Burris. Production Dramaturg: Drew Lichtenberg . Production Stage Manager Joseph Smelser and Assistant Stage Manager Elizabeth Clewley. Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jennifer Clements.