The Winter’s Tale is a triumph of passion, elegance and wit. Director Rebecca Taichman has shown a terrific ability to handle emotional transitions with music and stage choreography. This is a play of bold contests of forces and finally an array of joy. And it even has a bear in it!
The story, in brief: Leontes, King of Sicilia (Mark Harelik) accuses his Queen Hermione (Hannah Yelland) of adultery with his (ex) best friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Sean Arbuckle.) At the opening she’s hosting Polixenes as a guest of the Royal Court, at her husband’s bidding. Leontes suddenly becomes enraged with jealousy and says the child she is carrying is not his, she’s an adulteress, and is to be put in prison. A plot to kill Polixenes is spoiled and he escapes; the Queen births a baby girl in prison and Leontes, still crazed, insists the child be left abandoned to die in the land of Bohemia. Prince Mamillius (Heather Wood) dies of grief at his mother’s plight and the beautiful Hermione dies as well. Although The King pledges to pay for his sins with daily penance, he has lost the family he loved.
There’s a beautiful scene where director Taichman salts the stage with light and the ghost Hermione walks across in a procession of loss with the dead Prince carrying her gown’s train across the width of the stage. Upon this, the baby’s basket is placed. These moments are mosaics of light and stilled action.
The story is not complex and the wordplay and verbal effects are never lost on the audience. The actors liberate the language of Shakespeare and we cannot ask for more. In The Winter’s Tale there is comedy enough, and an ending where the infant girl, Perdita, now grown, is restored to her father’s court with her love, the son of ex enemy Polixenes.
And what of the bear? When the child is left to die, abandoned in Bohemia, the bear appears at first full force and scary, but loping off then like a Sesame Street bear. This is also a trademark of this Director’s play which depends on opposites for its best action.
I called a director friend, and reported about the Bear’s antics. He said “But how were the humans?” I said I believe I’ve never seen a better actor than Mark Harelik as he portrays “Leontes.” Rebecca Taichman has her actors double, and Heather Wood (Prince Mamillius) becomes the grown infant, Perdita, with beauty and grace. The actors are everyone excellent; and we are always happy when the strong Nancy Robinette takes the stage (Paulina/ drunken Shepherdess.)
Shakespeare gives us feelings bigger than we are. That’s why we keep going back to remind ourselves how human we really are. This is a story of a tyrant who becomes penitent for his sick reasonless jealousy. It’s a story of primal feelings, and the greatest gift of all—the ability to have another chance, and to transcend them.
Photos by T. Charles Erickson
“The Winter’s Tale” runs at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St., NW in Washington, through June 23. Tickets: 202-547-1122.
Grace Cavalieri produces ”The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio.