The Folger Shakespeare Theatre’s production of The Winter’s Tale makes for a great introduction to The Bard’s catalogue, covering romance, tragedy, drama, and magic in one show. A world fit for the wild and immersive story, The Folger Theatre takes few physical risks, and instead creates a musical accompaniment that both modernizes the story and freely exchanges the actors on stage with the musicians side stage, and back. This alone makes the small performance space more intimate.
The Winter’s Tale centers on King Leontes, whose mind is poisoned by the idea that his queen carries the child of another king. Several very bad things happen, as does several very good things, complete with soliloquy, court drama, songs, and surprises. It’s meant to be a crowd-pleaser. If you’ve ever wondered what makes Shakespeare so appealing to a broad audience, the play is like a crash course, and this performance delivers on almost all fronts.
The first act of the play is heavy, largely driven by the extreme delusion of the King, played by actor Michael Tisdale. The pregnant Queen Hermione, played by Katie deBuys, is admirably calm in the face of danger. A puppet takes the place of a real boy for their young son, and connects the audience’s expectations of comedy within the tragic first act.
King Leontes’s fear that his wife carries his longtime friend King Polixenes’s child dominates the first act: the drama, turned up beyond the highest balcony, with an ultra-dramatic final declaration. Here, it’s important to mention that King Polixenes and his son Florizell are played by black actors. The anger Leontes expresses suggests a layer of racial tension that could play a part in the anger Leontes has against the newborn baby. He refuses to even physically look at his daughter, much less consider her his own. If he had looked, he’d have known immediately.
I particularly liked the choice to walk Leontes into the audience during Hermione’s trial. It was an opportunity for the actor to turn Leontes’s perspective into ours, so that he can consider his wife as we do: the light shines blue around her pale body, stood upon a pedestal, and reminding him that regardless of what he does, she still loves him. It’s a beautiful and haunting moment.
The final few scenes of the first act start the shift into the extreme tonal shift of the second. The notorious “Exit, pursued by a bear” moment is particularly notable, and proves that the actor Eric Hissom can steal the show at pretty much any time. Between all of his characters and Kimberly Gilbert’s Autolycus, I’m unsure of which actor got the most laughs.
The music is a cool mix of percussion using a djembe drum and a strong melodic center akin to the suggested time period of the early 20th century and reflects the mix of cultures. It feels a bit out-of-place in some scenes, but overall, sets a very unique tone in an already wildly contrasting story. Since we now have snow in spring, take it as a sign to go to see this lively take on The Winter’s Tale.
Feature image King Leontes (Michael Tisdale) begins to feel the pangs of jealousy, as his queen Hermione (Katie deBuys) speaks with his best friend Polixenes (Aldo Billingslea), Photo by Teresa Wood