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The rich and curious harmonics of The Winter’s Tale get careful consideration in Rebecca Taichman’s elegant rendition for Shakespeare Theatre Company. It’s a tight ensemble piece—just nine actors in this minimalist staging, a severity echoed in the production’s clean-lined design—that paces out the courtly measures of Act 1’s romantic tragedy with a commendable stateliness, blooms into apt silliness for the play’s summery middle passage, then gathers its dignity as the action returns to the scene of a king’s crimes for reckoning and redemption. And the play’s great coup—the reunion of a penitent king and a wronged queen who may be returning to her husband from more than a strictly temporal distance—is accomplished here with no end of grace and no apology for the scene’s ambiguity.
The Winter’s Tale is one of two mirror-image worlds: the sober, wintry climes of Sicilia—where a jealous monarch (the nervy Mark Harelik) fatally accuses his innocent wife (a regal Hannah Yelland) of infidelity with his onetime best friend (dignified Sean Arbuckle)—and that comrade’s warmer, brighter kingdom of Bohemia. There, a loose, aestival amiability attends the courtship, some 16 years later, of one monarch’s headstrong son (a coltish Todd Bartels) and the other’s banished daughter (fresh-faced Heather Wood); the latter has been raised as a shepherd’s child, all unknowing of her parentage and her own repudiation, so when the mismatch comes to the Bohemian king’s attention, the first act’s drama of spousal loyalty finds an echo in the second’s concern with a royal father’s wrath at a disobedient son.
But then the story’s antiphons are many—nature and artifice, youth and age, crime and punishment, loss and restoration, the highborn and the low, faith and doubt, death and life—all of them unified by and across time, a force so essential to this surreal play that she’s an actual character. (Wood again, before she morphs from the first king’s dead son into his disinherited daughter.) Yes, it can be confusing, which is why the crystal clarity of Taichman’s version is so gratifying.
Its heart is, too: The fun those Bohemian rustics (Ted van Griethuysen and Tom Story, relaxing agreeably into clown roles) are having gives way to the sober necessity of the Sicilian king’s redemption as the second act winds down, and Taichman’s pace slows to accommodate one of Shakespeare’s dreamiest and most unlikely resolutions. The director’s deftness—and the lyricism of a final sequence to which Yelland brings a physical command of the sort we associate with divinity—make surprisingly emotional sense of a scene that can play too often like a parlor trick.