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Flashpoint: Mead Theatre Lab

Remaining Performances (tickets available here)

Monday, July 13 at 8 p.m. Thursday, July 16 at 8 p.m. Friday, July 17 at 8 p.m. Saturday, July 18 at 2 p.m. Saturday, July 18 at 8 p.m. Sunday, July 19 at 2 p.m. Monday, July 20 at 8 p.m. Thursday, July 23 at 8 p.m. Friday, July 24 at 8 p.m. Saturday, July 25 at 2 p.m. Saturday, July 25 at 8 p.m. Sunday, July 26 at 2 p.m.

They say: Careening between cruel tragedy and ludicrous comedy, this six-actor, ninety-minute take on Shakespeare’s fractured fairy tale will propel you alongside bears and tyrants, lovers and clowns, to places terrifying and delightful, where nothing is quite what it seems.

Rachel K.’s take: “A sad tale’s best for winter,” according to William Shakespeare. But fittingly for this summer’s Capital Fringe, We Happy Few’s The Winter’s Tale is not really a downer, despite starting off with some tragedy. Instead it looks to challenge audience members’ expectations for seeing a play.

The program acknowledges off the bat that The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakepeare’s hotter messes. It starts off with the kind of raging jealousy you’ve got to wait a few acts for in more beloved tragedies like Othello, when King Leontes (Nathan Bennett) is convinced that his very pregnant wife Hermione (Raven Bonniwell) and friend King Polixenes (Kiernan McGowan) are cuckholding him. The ambiguously friendly interaction between Bonniwell and McGowan makes this plausible, but as Leontes grows more convinced his wife is a “hobby horse,” he goes full Shakespearean tragic hero. You know the drill—he ignores his advisors protesting Hermione’s virtue, tries to get one of his advisors to kill Polixenes, and wants his newborn daughter abandoned in the woods. This does not end well for Leontes or Hermione, though Polixenes manages to escape with one of Leontes’ advisors (also Bonniwell).

Sounds like enough plot for an entire show, right? Well, it’s only the beginning of The Winter’s Tale. After a bawdy Shepherd (Katy Carkuff) finds baby Perdita, the show fast-forwards 16 years, when she has become a fetching teen (Kerry McGee) who wins the heart of Polixnes’ son Florizel (William Vaughan). Will she discover her royal heritage in time to win the King’s approval of their marriage?

Thankfully, that’s not the question The Winter’s Tale asks (because duh). The production is less propelled by plot than by the relationship between the audience and their hopes for a live performance. All of the actors play multiple characters, differentiated by costumes and sometimes accessories like swollen bellies. At the beginning, they quickly switch clothes and cadence off-stage, as expected. As the play continues, the lines blur between the characters, which feels confusing at first.

Later, though, it becomes clear that director Hannah Todd intends this muddle. In one scene, McGee turns a skirt into a poncho and back again to switch between her roles of Perdita and con man Autolycus. Why is it any stranger for her to do this in front of our eyes than in the wings? Somehow, though, putting this work right on stage subverts the unspoken code between performers and spectators: we’ll believe you’re a Greek king or an alien, or even an alien Greek king, so long as you hide the seams from us.

Another pledge that The Winter’s Tale breaks? That the play will show us the catharsis. Instead, the inevitable scene resolving all of the mistaken identities gets recounted by noble surfer bros, whose reading of Shakespeare fits strangely well. So now we’ve got costume changes on stage, and huge plot moments taking place off-stage.

The production pulls off this high-wire act thanks in large part to its game, talented cast, who weave in and out of the audience. They seem just as content to play up the high drama as they are to “baa” like sheep. Katy Carkuff, toggling between gravitas and lewdness, is a standout.

In the final scene, the characters visit a life-like statue of Hermione. The statue becomes real as soon as the play satisfies its foreseeable narrative arc, just as theater feels real when it does the same. We Happy Few wants to probe your limits for believing that the statue breathes.

See it if: You want to challenge how much you can suspend your disbelief, or if you’ve always wanted to see a Shakespeare scene played by a bunch of people who sound like Sean Penn’s character from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Skip it if: You like your entertainment handed to you without confusion. You’ve got to be actively watching for this one.