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Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” A Tragicomic Potpourri, Presents Death, Transformation, and Rebirth at McCarter

INTENSE JEALOUSY: Leontes, King of Sicilia (Mark Harelik, center), suddenly suspects his wife Hermione (Hannah Yelland) of committing adultery with his best friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Sean Arbuckle), and Leontes’ jealous rage sets off a series of tragic events that culminate in transformation and reconciliation, in McCarter Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” through April 21.

INTENSE JEALOUSY: Leontes, King of Sicilia (Mark Harelik, center), suddenly suspects his wife Hermione (Hannah Yelland) of committing adultery with his best friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Sean Arbuckle), and Leontes’ jealous rage sets off a series of tragic events that culminate in transformation and reconciliation, in McCarter Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” through April 21.

The first half feels like an abbreviated Othello — raging jealousy replete with tragic overtones and dire events. The world is stark, cold, male-dominated, and hostile. That’s the “winter” part. The second half moves to a pastoral setting, like the rural realm of As You Like It — springtime, celebration, flowers and butterflies, disguises and mistaken identities, love and joyous revelry, and a female presiding spirit. The last scene, with a hint of Shakespeare’s other great romances: Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Tempest, attempts to reconcile the two worlds with their disparate characters and themes.

The Winter’s Tale, directed by Rebecca Taichman (director of Twelfth Night and Sleeping Beauty Wakes at McCarter in 2009 and 2011 respectively,) is one of Shakespeare’s last plays, written in 1611, just before The Tempest. It is one of those late, difficult-to-categorize works, sometimes called tragicomedy, sometimes romance. If you’re looking for Othello or As You Like It, you might be disappointed here. A Winter’s Tale is neither great tragedy nor great comedy, but it presents memorable serious and comical material, psychological depth and enchanting fairy-tale improbabilities, sadness and joy in abundance, death, births, rebirths, and marriages.

The challenges of this magnificently complex, unwieldy play with its mixed tones, its tangled plot, and its rich Shakespearean verse, are significant, but Ms. Taichman and McCarter have assembled top-flight performers and a superb production team to tackle the task. The show is captivating from start to finish — dazzlingly inventive, visually and dramatically stunning.

Ms. Taichman has judiciously pared down the script, cutting many lines and reducing the number of characters from more than thirty to about twenty. Almost all of the actors in the nine-member ensemble play multiple roles. The results are illuminating, thought-provoking, and never unclear.

The Winter’s Tale begins in the court of King Leontes (Mark Harelik) in Sicilia. The spare setting and costuming are contemporary and formal. The action is partly stylized, partly realistic. Christine Jones’ ingenious set creates a certain theatricality for the telling of this “tale” in a lit-up double proscenium arch with a spiral of twenty pendant lights hanging chandelier-fashion. The furniture consists mainly of nine elegant dining room chairs, lined up downstage at the start, as the opening scene exposition is delivered, then moved upstage. Actors not involved in particular scenes watch, as if bearing witness, from their chairs on the upstage wall.

The Sicilia half of the play is the story of Leontes’ sudden suspicion of an adulterous relationship between his pregnant wife Hermione (Hannah Yelland) and his best friend King Polixenes of Bohemia (Sean Arbuckle), who has been visiting for nine months. Leontes bursts into jealous rage. Polixenes, with the help of Leontes’ adviser and assistant , Camillo (Brent Carver), escapes back to Bohemia, but Hermione is thrown into prison, where she gives birth to a baby daughter, Perdita, whom Leontes orders taken into exile and abandoned.

Leontes remains adamant in his irrational misogyny and sexual jealousy, despite brave and impassioned pleas from Paulina (Nancy Robinette), Hermione’s wise and faithful lady-in-waiting. In a scene of high drama, Leontes puts Hermione on trial. Word from Apollo’s oracle informs Leontes of his extreme misapprehensions; news arrives of the death of Leontes’ and Hermione’s young son, and the queen faints away (apparently dead). At that point, Leontes undergoes a sudden conversion, repenting his errors and vowing to do penance in an attempt to atone for the “deaths” of his innocent wife, son, and daughter.

The second half of the play, set mostly in the countryside of Bohemia (before returning to Sicilia for final reconciliations), offers welcome relief — and ultimately rebirth, transformation, and redemption — after the dark gloom and cynicism of Leontes’ world. Sixteen years have passed and Perdita (Heather Wood), who has been found and adopted by a Bohemian shepherd (Ted van Griethuysen) and his son (Tom Story), becomes the central character of the last acts.

Perdita has fallen in love with none other than young Florizel (Todd Bartels), the disguised son of King Polixenes, who, also disguised, discovers the young lovers at a spring festival of flowers and sheep shearing and forbids the continuation of their romance. Florizel and Perdita flee to Sicilia, pursued by Polixenes and Camillo.

Highly improbably — but this is the world of romance, and as its title suggests, the play grants Shakespeare the prerogative of the storyteller — the final scenes in Sicilia see the discovery of Perdita’s true identity and her reunion with her father. Leontes is then reconciled with Polixenes, and, through certain machinations of Paulina, Leontes is reunited with his wife, who was not really dead after all. In addition to the reunion of Leontes and Hermione, the marriages of Perdita and Florizel and of the elderly Camillo and Paulina bring the proceedings to a happy close.

Mr. Harelik’s Leontes is powerful and psychologically compelling, despite the implausible speed with which his jealous fury comes upon him. As the shape-shifting trickster Autolycus in Bohemia, Mr. Harelik displays an impressive versatility and infuses the second act scenes with a generous dose of high-spirited, roguish humor.

Ms. Yelland’s Hermione embodies regal and maternal dignity, strength, and beauty in abundance, making an unscripted but dazzlingly evocative appearance in mid-play to complement her spirited presence in the opening scenes and at the culmination of the evening.

Ms. Wood’s fresh-faced, fair and vibrant Perdita effectively delivers a youthful spirit of life and springtime in the second act. In an interesting directorial choice, she also ably fulfills the first-act role of Perdita’s brother, the young boy Mamillius, and of the transformative figure of Time, who explains the 16-year gap in the action and narrates the beginning of the second half of the play.

Mr. Carver’s Camillo and Ms. Robinette’s Paulina, both characters of solid good sense and reason, are crucial to the plot and theme of the play. Paulina is especially strong in speaking truth to power and in orchestrating the scheme that helps to bring about Leontes’ atonement and his reunion with Hermione. Ted van Griethuysen and Mr. Story provide some excellent antics and comic turns in the second half, and, along with Mr. Bartels, portray an array of convincing characters.

Original music for the play, composed by Nico Muhly, is highly effective in creating the multi-faceted, shifting world of The Winter’s Tale. As background music it sets the tone and reflects the psychological atmosphere in the first half of the play, then establishes the celebratory mood of the second half, as three musicians — accordion, fiddle, clarinet — come onstage for the sheep-shearing festivities, and finally helps to create the magical transformation of the last scene.

There are many stunning moments in the play, where Mr. Muhly’s music, Ms. Jones’ set, David Zinn’s creative costumes, and Christopher Akerlind’s frequently shifting, richly expressive lighting all work together successfully with characters and dialogue to communicate the essences of Shakespeare’s play.

“It is required you do awake your faith,” says Paulina in the beautifully staged, wonderfully astonishing final scene of the play, as she presents the “statue” of Hermione and presides as it comes to life. This sumptuous Winter’s Tale is an extraordinary tribute to the spirit of comedy and springtime and to the magic of the theatrical illusion with the power to redeem all and bring rebirth and reconciliation. The theater audience cannot help but join the onstage characters as they awake their faith, suspend disbelief and participate in the wonders of this magical tale.

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