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Hazy Shade of Winter's

Bard's Sicilian/Bohemian Tale Worth the Confusion

Have You Heard the One About the Shepherd's Daughter?: Tina Jones (Perdita) and Mark Elliot Wilson (Polixenes) in The Winter's Tale.

By John Barry | Posted 3/6/2002

The Winter's Tale

William Shakespeare

If you like your Shakespeare straight up and easily pegged, the Bard's later plays can be problematic. The Winter's Tale, for example, kicks off with three acts of over-the-top tragedy, proceeds through two more of pastoral romance and comedy, then ends on a decidedly ambiguous note. A control freak might be tempted to enforce some sort of order on all this hither and yon, but happily, Irene Lewis, director of the current Center Stage production, resists the temptation. A light touch and a sense of humor guide the proceedings, revealing the magic at the heart of this puzzling, sad, funny tale.

Tale play begins with a minor apocalypse. A few minutes into the first scene, King Leontes of Sicily (Jon DeVries) gets the idea that his childhood friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Mark Wilson), has slept with his wife, Hermione (Olivia Birkelund). Almost immediately, the loyal friend and happy husband is transformed into a raging, self-destructive paranoiac. There are echoes of Othello here, with one big difference: Othello had Iago to blame everything on. Leontes cooks his own goose. He threatens to kill Polixenes, orders the pregnant Hermione imprisoned, condemns the resultant daughter, and inadvertently causes his son's death. What emerges is Shakespeare at his most nihilistic: "The covering sky is nothing, Bohemia nothing, my wife is nothing. . . ." By Act 3, when Leontes realizes the error of his ways, Sicily is a wasteland, his trusted advisers have left him, and his wife is dead--as far as he knows.

Lewis chooses to tiptoe through the tragedy with a minimum of sound and fury. The main characters are a little less fiery than one might expect. DeVries' Leontes is a large, shuffling imp of the perverse, Birkelund's Hermione a lovely trophy wife. When he suspects Polixenes of sleeping with her, it appears to be an age issue: He's old; she's pretty. In a powerful performance as Paulina, wife of Sicilian lord Antigonus, Caitlin O'Connell injects some energy into the production's slow first half as she emerges as Leontes' foil. It becomes clear that, even if he's a king, she's wearing the pants.

The second half shifts from bland, sterile Sicily to colorful Bohemia, 16 years in the future. Christine Jones' set takes on a carnival atmosphere, complete with a lit-up Ferris wheel, a flying ship, flying sheep, falling rose petals, and a blue bear. Enter two young lovers: Polixenes' son, Florizel (Derek Phillips), in the company of Leontes' daughter Perdita, (Tina Jones), who was abandoned as a foundling and brought up as a shepherd's daughter. Jones and Phillips pair off well, giving perhaps the slightest hint of what Leontes and Hermione might have been in the bloom of love. Polixenes soon arrives on the scene disguised in hunter's camouflage, only to unmask himself (literally) and berate his son for marrying beneath his station. Wilson's flash of rage at this point is brief but scary; he seems more leonine than Leontes. Exiled Sicilian lord Camillo (Conan McCarty) moves in to save the day, directing everyone back to Sicily for a reunion and conclusion.

In the final act, Jones' spare and hauntingly beautiful set lends a dreamy vagueness to the reunion of Hermione, Leontes, and Perdita. This is where the slow start takes its toll. In a play that is built around difficult transformations, Shakespeare's ending weaves tragedy and comedy together into a story of rebirth. But what, exactly, is being reborn? It's not easy to discern the impact Leontes' jealousy has had on himself and Hermione (other than driving her into hiding for 16 years), especially since there's little clue about what their relationship was like in the first place.

Much credit for keeping things lively goes to the many neatly done comic supporting turns that emerge from the woodwork as the play progresses: Tom Mardirosian's Autolycus, the con artist/thief who manages to wriggle himself into a play in which he doesn't appear to have a part; Laurence O'Dwyer and Jefferson Mays, as the Shepherd and Clown, respectively, make a wonderful team of father-and-son bunglers; satyr/bear Warren Snipe performs a memorable dance scene for the assembled crowd of guests in Act 4. Candice Donelly's costuming is a sometimes puzzling but always enjoyable mixture of styles ranging from Roman to Victorian to mid-'70s leisure suits to hip-hop styling. Don't try to figure it out; just sit back and enjoy, and remember: This is the late Shakespeare, who pleases some, tries all, and doesn't really care if you walk away a little confused.

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