- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 7, 2002

Discussions of whether Shakespeare's “The Winter's Tale” is a tragedy, a comedy, a romance or a problem play are dispelled during the first act of the Shakespeare Theatre's production directed by Michael Kahn. It is simply an ordeal.

We slog through acres of exposition for more than an hour, and even though there are tragedy and lamentations aplenty (even the death of a small boy), you struggle to keep your eyes open.

Sicilia, home of King Leontes (Philip Goodwin) seems an airless and cheerless place despite the court's somberly opulent Regency costumes by Catherine Zuber. The whole kingdom has taken on the broody countenance of the king it is always snowing, there seems to be a perpetual draft, and storm clouds are omnipresent. Then again, the actors have to tread up and down Walt Spangler's deathtrap of a set a precipitous group of slopes that have you taking a deep breath every time Emery Battis (who plays Time, among other roles) appears or an outbreak of dancing threatens.

All of a sudden, actress Tana Hicken, playing Paulina, the firebrand defender of the very pregnant Queen Hermoine (Lise Bruneau) delivers a speech about her queen's honor full of such cold fury and patrician umbrage (she calls the king a tyrant more than once) that things start looking up. (Hermoine has been irrationally accused by Leontes of adultery with his best friend, Polixenes, king of Bohemia, played by Brent Harris.)

The torpor and gloom are gone for good when we are whisked away to Bohemia and our first sight is a king-size gent in a bright red cap and a rough coat calling out a robust “baaaa” to his lost sheep. The Old Shepherd (David Sabin) spies a baby in a basket and immediately lapses into baby talk, cootchy-cooing until we are beguiled and never want to go back to Sicilia again.

The invigoration continues when his son, the Young Shepherd (Patrick Ellison Shea) arrives on the scene wearing an equally comic red hat and a rosy-cheeked demeanor straight out of Mother Goose. The two indulge in a rump-wriggling dance of joy that indicates they are contented men, no matter what luck and fate blow their way.

Flowers sprout up in the floorboard cracks in Bohemia, which is worlds away from the shadows and intrigue of Sicilia. Mr. Kahn does a marvelous job of delineating the two worlds of “The Winter's Tale” perhaps too good. There simply is no comparison.

The first act is supposed to set the emotional foundation for what is to come after the King's sociopathic jealousy results in the destruction of his family. Instead, Mr. Goodwin and Miss Bruneau are so cold and overwrought that you look to the other characters such as the profoundly upright Paulina and Cleomenes (Ralph Cosham), her good-hearted and gently henpecked husband for the warmth and weight you seek.

The production's sluggish pulse quickens with the entrance of stage veteran Sabin, who reaches giddy heights when the Old Shepherd holds a sheep-shearing feast hosted by the foundling babe, now a young woman of noble bearing named Perdita (Mireille Enos).

Perdita, a princess in shepherdess's clothing, is beloved by Florizel (Jeremiah Wiggins), the son of Polixenes. This being a Shakespearean tragicomedy, Polixenes is none too thrilled that his son is marrying below his station.

The feast is an alpine orgy of leiderhosen, Bavarian embroidery, Tyrolean hats, tightly laced bodices and silly dairy-maid caps. There even are yodeling and folk dancing, and it is all so merry you just want to belt out “The Lonely Goatherd.”

During the festivities, Perdita is betrothed to Florizel (and later flees to Sicilia to escape Polixenes' wrath), and everyone is swindled by the jaunty, song-trilling scam artist Autolycus (the devilishly entertaining Donald Corren).

The contrived ending, in which Perdita's true parentage is revealed, the lovers are united, best friends are forgiven and a statue comes back to life, has nowhere near the gravity and sense of neatness it requires. Everyone seems to be racing through the denouement, just wanting to get it over with.

This a handsome production of “The Winter's Tale,” but one that exudes a pale fire. Except for Mr. Sabin as the sweetly clownish Old Shepherd and Miss Hicken as the embodiment of a woman wronged, the cast seems quite reserved. That makes it a long “Winter” indeed.


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WHAT: “The Winter's Tale” by William Shakespeare

WHERE: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

TICKETS: $16 to $66

PHONE: 202/547-1122

MAXIMUM STAR RATING: FOUR STARS


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