THE WINTER'S TALE by William Shakespeare
directed by T.J. Walsh

youtube trailer:

Trinity Shakespeare Festival navigates the difficulties of the late romance The Winter's Tale with finesse.
by M. Lance Lusk

In the latter part of his career, Shakespeare penned six plays—meditations on the dark night of the bittersweet soul—called the “romances.” These works are characterized by a blending of the comedic and tragic, truth through action, time gaps, miracles, the transformation of death into life, and hard-won reunions.

Of the six romances (Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and The Two Noble Kinsmen), The Winter’s Tale is the most difficult to produce successfully because of its vastly different halves of tragedy and comedy taking place in far-flung locales, and disparate time changes. For these reasons, and many more, theaters tend to avoid The Winter’s Tale, especially during summer seasons that beg for lighter fare.

In Trinity Shakespeare Festival’s eight years of producing dual repertory plays, they had only attempted one romance, 2014’s visually insightful The Tempest (by far the most produced play in the genre). Taking on the challenge of The Winter’s Tale, with Founding Artistic Director T.J. Walsh at the helm and the returning Trisha Miller in the cast was one I looking forward to TSF attempting.

The first half of the play takes place in chilly, rigid Sicily (Clare DeVries’ set of somber blues and wooded winterscapes set the mood). King Leontes (J. Brent Alford) and his pregnant wife, Hermione (Allison Pistorius) entertain his childhood friend, King Polixenes (Richard Haratine). Leontes is suddenly struck with insane jealousy leading to deaths and exile that propel the play sixteen years in the future to Bohemia where Leontes’ lost daughter, Perdita (Amber Flores who shines in the musical numbers) finds folksy purchase in the home of an Old Shepherd (David Coffee) and his son, the Clown (Garret Storms).

It is a tribute to Alford’s skill that Leontes turn from bon vivant regent to raging tyrant (yet still sympathetic) is believable. Pirstorius has her hands full—and succeeds in—making a similarly difficult transformation from charming queen, to imprisoned martyr, to living statue (kudos to Walsh for handling the staging of the final reunion, and the famous “Exit pursued by a bear” scenes perfectly).

Haratine makes his snobbish Polixenes likable although he dislikes the union between his son, Florizel (a musically gifted Teddy Warren) and Perdita. Coffee and Storms make for a fabulous comedy pair, and Blake Hackler’s rascal conman Autolycus rounds out the action with more much-needed hilarity.

The play finds its steadfast conscience in the character of Paulina (Miller), a Sicilian Lady who stands up to Leontes, looks after Hermione, and facilitates the wronged queen’s “return.” It takes a supremely confident actor, like Miller, with a calm presence (think Judi Dench in the recent West End production in London) to make it work.

Lloyd Cracknell’s Jane Austen-style (Regency) costumes of gowns, frock coats and boots for the men, and the Bohemian Gypsy land of country St. Pauli Girls are all beautiful. Alan Shorter’s music supervision and Toby Jaguar Algya’s sound design keep the propulsive beats coming and highlight the gorgeous song and dance numbers (choreography by Kelsey Milbourn). Particularly moving is the cast’s celebratory rendition of Hillsong United’s “Relentless.”

Perhaps it is true that “a sad tale's best for winter,” but this Tale shines bright in any season.