REVIEW: Delivering a cohesive whole in Shakespeare Theatre Co.’s ‘The Winter’s Tale.’

From left: Hannah Yelland as Hermione, Mark Harelik as Leontes and Sean Arbuckle as Polixenes in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of “The Winter’s Tale,” directed by Rebecca Taichman. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The Winter’s Tale,” now at the Shakespeare Theatre, is one of Shakespeare’s more confusing plays. The first act is darkly tragic with echoes of the Bard borrowing from his own works and other classics. After intermission, the play takes an abrupt turn and becomes a pastoral, farcical comedy moving right on to a happy ending. It’s enough to give an audience whiplash. It is understandable that “The Winter’s Tale” has been difficult for scholars to categorize — some have said it is a tragedy; others a comedy. Generally, it is defined as one of the romantic plays.

That aside, director Rebecca Taichman guides the play’s complex emotional pathways with a clear understanding of where she’s taking us. The first act is painfully dark with echoes of “Othello”: the Sicilian King Leontes is irrationally obsessed with the belief that his wife Queen Hermione has been having an adulterous relationship with his best friend King Polixenes of Bohemia. As a result, the friendly but innocent Polixenes finds it necessary to flee back to Bohemia.

Leontes’ jealousy is such that he even refuses to believe Apollo’s Oracle at Delphos declaring the queen innocent and chaste. He banishes the pregnant queen to imprisonment where she has a daughter, and then banishes the baby from his kingdom. His young son dies because of the turmoil. When Hermione learns of his death, she too succumbs.

That ends the first act. And then the final act of the play opens to a pastoral setting which designer Christine Jones whimsically dresses with cutouts of sheep and actors moving about with over-sized butterflies on long poles. The setting is Bohemia where the queen’s baby has been left with an old shepherd, the brilliant Ted van Griethuysen. It is 16 years later, with actors from the first act now portraying different characters. There are nine actors in “The Winter’s Tale” portraying 16 characters, with only Hannah Yelland, a soft beauty who plays Hermione, in a singular role. She is a melancholy presence and dominates the stage with her understated performance.

Mark Harelik, who is a hateful King Leontes in the first act, is now the pickpocket rogue Autolyucus complete with eye patch and rags. This is Shakespeare where such illogical things occur. Harelik handles both roles with élan. The talented veteran actress Nancy Robinette plays the sympathetic Sicilian lady who is loyal to the queen throughout the play, but in the second act she becomes the drunken shepherdess.

The set, especially in the first act, is on a stage with an austere formal backdrop and chairs that are moved about to create different settings. Jones has made the starkness work. David Zinn’s costumes are also effective — contemporary suits in the first act don’t feel like a stretch for the sake of being different. It is a tribute to the performers that you quickly move beyond the dress and easily focus on the drama enfolding, even when the actors are in rural costumes in the next act.

The final setting, when all is wrapped up and we are back in Sicilia, is especially potent. Christopher Akerlind’s dramatic lighting enhances the romantic atmosphere leading up to a happy ending. “The Winter’s Tale” clearly is challenging for any director and cast, but in this production, Jones makes it work.

“The Winter’s Tale” continues through June 23 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW, 202-547-1122, $43-$95 and available here.

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