Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is hard to classify. In the first half of the play, everything is bleak and cold. As one young character says, “A sad tale’s best for winter.” The king of Sicilia suspects his wife is unfaithful, precipitating tragedies including the loss of both his children and his wife. He is cut off from his family by his intense jealousy and fear that others are deceiving him.
Following intermission, the tone of the play changes dramatically. The setting is now summer in Bohemia, a colorful and crowded land full of fluttering butterflies, drunken shepherds, and young lovers. During these scenes, the play becomes a comedy darkened only by conman Autolycus who lies and cheats the residents of Bohemia. At the end of the play, the characters reunite in Sicilia. The tone is neither clearly tragic nor clearly comic. Shakespeare scholars often classify this play as a romance.
The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production has a cast of only nine actors, quite a feat for a play with many more characters. Six of the actors play two characters apiece, one in the Sicilian court and one in the Bohemian countryside. By choosing to cast actors like this, director Rebecca Taichman emphasized the similarities and differences between the doubled characters.
The transitions between doubled characters were sometimes shown deliberately rather than being concealed behind the curtain. Actor Mark Harelik, for example, changes out of the tattered remnants that clothe Autolycus into the formal black suit of the mourning king, while never leaving the stage. He slicks back his hair with his hand and steps into the character of the king. The transformation allows the audience to connect the deceitful rogue (whose lies hurt all around him) to the jealous king (whose lies to himself do the same).
Alongside the actors are three musicians who play their parts beautifully. Composer Nico Muhly’s compositions contrast Sicilia and Bohemia with both echoes of the same musical themes and dramatic shifts in mood. The final scene is enhanced by the magical music, the outstanding acting of Hannah Yelland (who plays Hermione), and the set design of Christine Jones.
The Winter’s Tale is a play about transformations, magical and otherwise, as well as love reunited. This production brings out depth and meaning carefully. The most famous stage direction in all of Shakespeare (“Exit, pursued by a bear”) is safe in the hands of these actors.