by Anita W. Harris
What better way to open a renovated theatre than with music, champagne and cupcakes? So begins Folger Theatre’s production of William Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” a play that journeys through the depths of obsession, paranoia and untimely death to festivity, new love, and reunion.
With its themes of loss and resurrection, “The Winter’s Tale” is thus a fitting play to grace this Elizabethan-style stage—the first part of the Folger Shakespeare Library to reopen after its renovation, with the rest of the venerable Washington, D.C. institution slated to open in spring 2024.
An excellent cast, expertly directed by Tamilla Woodard, sustains the play’s spirited opening throughout its tumultuous course. King Leontes of Sicilia (Hadi Tabbal) and Queen Hermione (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) are celebrating their son’s eighth birthday as both try to convince the king’s brother Polixenes (Drew Kopas) to stay a while longer before returning to rule his own kingdom of Bohemia.
Enhanced by upbeat music that fills the theatre (sound design by Matthew M. Nielsen), modern costuming with flair (designed by Sarah Cubbage), all under a golden frame (scenic design by Raul Abrego, Jr.), the celebration is both royal and familiar.
But the jovial spirit quickly turns sour as Leontes shares his suspicions that the pregnant Hermione has more than sisterly intentions toward Polixenes, observing her wipe cupcake frosting from his brother’s lips.
The depths of Leontes’ obsessive thoughts about his wife are reinforced by an eerie turn in the music and stark lighting (designed by Max Doolittle). The entrenchment of his beliefs becomes even more apparent as he argues with reluctant courtiers Camillo (Cody Nickell) and Antigonus (Stephen Patrick Martin), commanding them to imprison the queen.
Director Woodard parallels Leontes’ paranoia to the current “divisive narratives we use to separate ourselves, one from another,” even from those we love most. A leader’s blind belief in his own judgment, despite all other opinion and evidence, is not unknown to us either.
Tabbal excels at expounding the king’s ill thoughts of the queen with a clear and sharp vehemence, dressed in a businessman’s suit and tie. And Crowe-Legacy is his perfect foil as Hermione—warmly regal in flowing hair and dress, allowing us to feel the attack on her humanity.
When the obsessed king won’t even heed the words of the oracle of Apollo about how wrong he is, defying the god causes sad and untimely deaths, including the queen. Fortunately, the baby daughter she had borne in prison is whisked away to Bohemia by Antigonus, who, unfortunately, is eaten by a bear, which we learn in hilarious fashion from the son of the shepherd who finds the child.
Post-intermission Bohemia is more rural and freewheeling than Sicilia. The big event is an annual sheep-shearing, hosted by our shepherd (Martin), his gangly son (Nicholas Gerwitz) and—16 years after her adoption—beautiful young Perdita (Kayleandra White).
Here the cast has fun in cowboy chaps and gingham dresses amid haybales, drink coolers and a boombox. With the help of Autolycus (Reza Salazar)—a scoundrel who leads an audience-interactive song, cleverly pickpockets and sells the locals overpriced trinkets and mixtapes—the Bohemians throw a lively and amusing hoedown.
Amid the frivolity, Florizel (Jonathan Del Palmer) expresses undying love for Perdita, though he won’t tell his dad, King Polixenes. Amid further frivolity, disguises and revelations, events conspire to take everyone to Sicilia to sort out who's who and do what’s right.
The crowning glory of that resolution is the unveiling of a very lifelike statue of Hermione commissioned by noblewoman Paulina (Kate Eastwood Norris), who had been the queen’s staunch and vocal advocate. Though Leontes realized the error of his ways 16 years before, Paulina feels he is only now ready and deserving to see the statue.
The rest requires an awakening of faith, as Paulina says, and is beautifully staged, especially owing to Crowe-Legacy’s ability to appear statue-like and Paulina’s moving invocation. Norris embodies Paulina—a poised and assertive noblewoman in heels and blue suit, speaking up convincingly for the queen in Act 1 and delivering her final scene with heartfelt emotion. Amazingly, Norris also dances as a shepherdess at the Bohemian hoedown.
It’s also amusing to see Martin transition seamlessly from formal Sicilian general Antigonus to Bohemian shepherd, speaking in a drawl and cooing at the baby he finds in the forest. Gerwitz similarly delights as the shepherd’s son, with natural comic timing. And Nickell is a believable everyman as Camillo, who finds himself exiled in Bohemia and must orchestrate his way back home to Sicilia.
In fact, the entire ensemble is effectively cast and directed with nuance by Woodard. Under her guidance, each word of the play’s Shakespearean language is accessible, delivered with meaningful tone and clarifying gestures.
Equal parts fairy tale and allegory, tragedy and comedy, “The Winter’s Tale” offers a lot in one play. Thanks to an invested cast and crew, this Folger Theatre production treats the unsettling parts seriously and the lighthearted parts with whimsy and creativity—a party from beginning to end.
“The Winter’s Tale” continues at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, D.C., through Dec. 17. For tickets and information, visit Folger.edu. Run time is 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission.