One of the most sensible approaches to Shakespeare’s problem plays is simply to cut out the problematic parts and zero in on the play’s beating heart. With its long one-act presentation of The Winter’s Tale, HalfMad Theatre does just that, drawing the painful tale of redemption and reunion out from some of the woolier parts of the original, highlighting certain strengths and, unfortunately, certain weaknesses in the process.
The smart adaptation by Elizabeth Dapo (who co-directs with Kristen Pilgrim) keeps the focus on the tale of Leontes (Connor Hogan), the King of Sicily, who falsely gets the idea that his wife, Hermione (Emily Marsh) has cheated on him with his best friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Luke Cieslewicz) – and, as it follows, on the tale of Leontes’ daughter Perdita (Paige O’Malley) once she is rescued by cooler heads from her father’s wrath and finally ends up betrothed to Polixenes’ son Florizel (Seamus Miller).
Audiences unfamiliar with the full version will not miss scenes such as the visit to the Oracle, but they may sense a somewhat rushed compression of the play’s comedic pastoral scenes usually found in Act II due to the removal of Autolycus’ thievery plot and much of the festival.
But enough about what isn’t in this show; let’s talk about what’s there.
The weight of the plot is put on Hogan’s shoulders, as most of the other characters merely stand by and react to Leontes’ ever-growing jealousy in the tragic first half. Hogan is very committed and believable, but he does not find enough differentiation in the stages of Leontes’ downfall or enough registers to play in besides anger, flattening Leontes’ emotional arc.
This condition is not aided by a forced staginess that, at times, suggests actors paying more attention to hitting their marks than connecting with their characters. Too many of Shakespeare’s verses get muddled and too much of the play’s early going drags as a result.
However, the further the production moves from the tragic depths, the more moments of sublime emotion and keen wistfulness it achieves. Carol Spring closes out the serious portion of the tale with a firmly grounded grief as Paulina; following that, Miller and O’Malley, playing the two young lovers, bring plenty of joy as they warm up to the audience. In her program note, Dapo describes a personal connection to the play’s themes, and that genuine devotion to the essential story being told comes through all the more when the actors are less strained.
This company is unafraid to incorporate whatever element will make sense of the story, creating an effect somehow both eclectic and elegant. The two directors, along with their ensemble – all of whom share group credit for the set, lighting, and costume design – have a way with simple, effective choices in everything from the tatters that stand in for tree branches to the serving cup with which Leontes asks Camilla (Erica Smith) to deliver poison to Polixenes.
THE WINTER’S TALE
March 13 – 29
Half Mad Theatre at
Trinidad Theatre (new Fringe Festival venue)
1358 Florida Ave NE
Washington, DC 20002
1 hour, 40 minutes with no intermission
Fridays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
Amongst the cleverer ideas are the use of a slightly unwieldy yet somehow adorable puppet as Leontes’ young son Mamillius (voiced by O’Malley) and expanding the role of Shakespeare’s anthropomorphized Time (Justin Mohay) to that of a sad, omniscient narrator. Spring and Miller provide accompaniment on violin and guitar,doing much to sweeten the bitter moments and enliven the comic ones (with extra credit to Marsh’s wind instrument skills as the Clown) with a thoughtful selection of instrumental pieces and familiar pop songs.
There is so much to balance in even the best plays, and in a topsy-turvy work like The Winter’s Tale perhaps there is no ideal approach that could make for a cohesive whole. With a stronger and subtler approach to character in the first half, the aim of HalfMad’s production for the tragic portion might indeed have been fulfilled, but the final product might still have been unbalanced. Whatever the show gains from excising Shakespeare’s stranger comedy elements, perhaps it also loses something and remains unbalanced, just in a different direction.
This is, perhaps, one of the most elegiac and winteriest Winter’s Tales you might ever see. If it is somewhat incomplete in that way, then perhaps, as with any story of loss, that incompleteness may be kind of the point.
Disclosure: I am friends with and have worked with actor Erica Smith, playing Camilla/Lady in this production. This did not affect my review.
The Winter’s Tale . Adapted and directed by Elizabeth Dapo . Featuring Connor J. Hogan, Luke Cieslewicz, Seamus Miller, Carol Spring, Frank Mancino, Erica Smith, Paige O’Malley, Emily Marsh and Justin Mohay . Produced by HalfMad Theatre . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.