There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
How to handle The Winter’s Tale’s (in)famously betwixt-and-between nature? It’s tragedy leavened by comedy, or maybe vice-versa, but a production can’t simply plop a green-eyed Othello into The Merry Wives of Windsor and have done with it, even if that’s pretty much what the plot calls for. Jealous Leontes (Daniel Stewart), King of Sicilia, wrongly accuses his wife Hermione (Connan Morrissey) of making the two-backed beast with Polixenes, the King of Bohemia (David Whalen), setting in motion a chain of events that will result in three deaths, much grief, and—eventually, if incongruously—a happy ending. Director Blake Robison casts the play’s action as a bedtime story from a father (Lawrence Redmond) to his young son (Zophia Pryzby), a framing device that ties the evening up in a pat little bow with the unintended effect of lowering the stakes rather precipitously. But you can’t really get too worked up over that, because Shakespeare did everything he could to keep the stakes below sea level himself. As written, the play’s first half—all rage, recrimination, and dire consequences—is immediately followed by a rustic, love-conquers-all second half that invariably plays like an extended “Just Kidding!” Folger’s staging deals with The Winter’s Tale’s bipolar nature by taking the play off its meds. The first half, set in a dark, sleekly modern Sicilia, exudes dourness and regret, while the second half takes place in a decidedly flower-powered Bohemia peopled by rubes and bumpkins. (You half expect Minnie Pearl to pop her head up out of the cornfield any second.) Kate Turner-Walker’s costumes serve much the same effect: Her Sicilians favor sleek black suits without lapels, while her Bohemians drape themselves in brightly colored daywear by the fashion house of Barnum & Bailey. James Kronzer’s design transforms the Folger’s quasi-Elizabethan space with austere walls of black glass that handle their double duty nicely—in the moonlit Sicilia scenes, their dark panels reflect the onstage action like obsidian; once the action shifts, Kenton Yeager lights the panels from behind to reveal the azure skies of sun-dappled Bohemia. Given such abrupt changes in mood, the production suffers from a chronic case of tonal whiplash, but that’s sort of the point, and Robison welcomes it. He’s helped by strong performances from Stewart, Anthony Cochrane (having a blast as a quintessentially roguish Shakespearean rogue) and Naomi Jacobsen’s characteristically nimble work as the stern Paulina. I’m still not sold on the fairytale device, which robs the evening of a favorite bit (Time doesn’t get the speaking part Shakespeare wrote for him/her/it), and as for the play’s famous stage direction (“Exit, pursued by a bear”), it’s still here, although the pivotal and tragic scene in which it features has been tweaked to align it more squarely with the bright Bohemian Rhapsody of the play’s latter half. Cleverly tweaked, yes—but if you enjoy the first half’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, you won’t be prepared for such a drastic key change.