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Late in his career, William Shakespeare wrote several plays that involved daughters forgiving their fathers for their frequent absences or worse behaviors. Among these is The Winter’s Tale, a tonal puzzler that is the inverse of Studio Theatre’s Translations—a tragedy in its early acts, a comedy in its later ones—and happens to contains the most famous stage direction in theater: exit, pursued by a bear.
The show concerns Sicily’s King Leontes (Michael Tisdale), who becomes convinced that his Queen Hermione (Kate deBuys) has cuckolded him with his old pal Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Aldo Billingslea), and that the child she’s carrying is in fact the Bohemian’s. Once the girl is born, Leontes orders her exiled. There’s a gap of 18 years—16, originally, but life expectancies have grown and social mores have changed—before we learn what became of that little girl, performed as a puppet by Daven Ralston in the show’s somber first half and by Ralston sans puppet in its more festive second.
In his new Folger Winter’s Tale, director Aaron Posner has cast one of his favorite performers, Eric Hissom, as Antigonus—the loser of that ursine foot race, I am sorry to tell you—and as the show’s guitar-strumming narrator, a post of Posner’s own invention. (All the parts save for Tisdale’s maniacal, then grief-haunted Leontes are double or triple-cast.) Easygoing troubadours who speak to the audience directly are a treasured Posner trope. (On press night, I was personally implored to roar like a lion, so avoid the aisle seats if you fear that sort of thing.) Kimberly Gilbert, another frequent Posner collaborator, gets to play her ukulele and sing bawdy sea shanties and generally clown it up as a pickpocket.
A problem play like this one welcomes Posner’s what-you-will approach more readily than some of the better-known Shakespeares he’s tackled at the Folger in recent years, and Tisdale and Billingslea are superb as the show’s dual kings. Tisdale has an especially daunting job, in that he must persuade us of Leontes’ fast-descending madness, his humiliation and repentance, and of the restoration of a wife and daughter he’d believed lost for a generation. An actor who can pull that off deserves all the stage time he can get.
201 East Capitol St. SE. $35–$79. (202) 544-7077. folger.edu.