If William Shakespeare produced The Winter’s Tale in Play Writing 101 today, I bet his teacher would scold him for not following the rules of the genre. The plot is all kind of strange, for one thing—halfway through the play, the action movies from the land of Sicilia to a mostly new set of characters in the land of Bohemia. Then it suddenly jumps forward sixteen years. Also, the play starts out a tragedy, but takes a hard turn into comedy and never defines itself satisfactorily. Of course there is the whole mom-coming-back-from-the-dead thing at the end. Kind of far-fetched.
The Winter’s Tale has certainly earned its reputation as a problem play. The Folger Theatre’s new production cleverly solves most of these problems with an ingenious framing device. A young boy asks his father to tell him a story (“pray you sit by us, and tell’s a tale”) and the rest of the play unfolds as a fairy tale shared between father and son. The child plays witness to much that happens—but he also intervenes, controlling the action when moved to do so. It is this sprite who beckons the statue of Hermione into place; this giggling imp who kills Antigonus with his teddy bear in a mock play-fight. The strange twists of the plot make sense, somehow, when dreamed into existence by an imaginative child during story-time. The double-casting of Zophia Pryzby (Mamillius) as the child and Lawrence Redmond (Antigonus) as the father also resonates. Antigonus and Mamillius, after all, are the only characters not to get a happy ending. Unlike Hermione, they stay dead. So it is somehow fitting that these two dead ones, these two lost ones, are the ones who wait and watch, flitting like ghosts among the living. The device works beautifully.
The framing device is the most interesting part of the show, frankly. Director Blake Robison deserves a lot of credit for daring to tweak Shakespeare’s play—he reassigns dialogue to the father and son, plays with the structure, and so forth. And since the acting is unspectacular, my attention naturally focused on the directorial choices. The lead role of Leontes is played by Daniel Stewart, son of Patrick and just as bald. His Leontes isn’t bad, exactly. He’s just…there, mostly wringing his hands. Connan Morrissey as his wife Hermione is uneven; she has good moments with Leontes, but when reunited with her daughter, is oddly grating and graceless. The daughter in question, Perdita, is played by Laura C. Harris, a refreshingly curvy young lady of the peaches and cream variety. Dan Crane plays her beau, Florizell, with a light and natural touch. Naomi Jacobson as the sharp-tongued Paulina brings a jolt of energy to all of her scenes, and is easily the most interesting of the leads. And the little girl cast as Mamillius is charming.
Set design, by James Kronzer, rather predictably features a background of snow in Sicilia and a backdrop of sunflowers in Bohemia. Sicilia=sad, Bohemia=happy. Got it. The costumes, by Kate Turner-Walker, lack imagination as well. In Sicilia, the men are buttoned up in suits; in Bohemia, they luxuriate in flowing fabrics. The women in Sicilia wear spiky high heels (which is silly, considering all the running about and energetic crying in which they indulge). Women in Bohemia go barefoot. And so on.
In the end, this is a production that is strongest when all the crying and laughing has stopped. It is in the silences that this play finds its power—in the mostly wordless tableaus of a parent and child engaging one other. I’ll confess, dear reader, that I remained dry-eyed during the unseemly number of both deaths and reunions, but the last image—wholly invented by the director, moodily lit, moodily staged,—well, that got to me. I’ll leave it to you to see the production and find out why.