A cold, confusing 'Winter's Tale' at Shakespeare Theatre

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Entertainment,Theater,Jolene Munch

It may be warm and summery outside, but inside the Lansburgh Theatre there is a brisk storm brewing in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's new production of "The Winter's Tale." And as conceived with confusing complexity by Rebecca Taichman, it's one blurry blizzard of a play.

That's because Taichman, a typically astute director with a fine acumen for layered drama, made the perplexing choice to use her small cast to fill in the shoes of characters on both sides of the intermission. Nine actors take on double duty in Shakespeare's romantic "problem play," and while all of the familiar themes of reconciliation and renewal fan out in heavily stylized fashion, they're not exactly as effective as when left to conventional casting.

It's still the same Shakespearean plot, spun from the misery of a jealous husband and twirled into a heap of trouble. When the king of Sicilia unjustly accuses his innocent queen of infidelity with his childhood pal, the king of Bohemia, his unrighteous rage ends in fury and a sharp slap of karmic retribution. As he bans his infant daughter to a life of pastoral anonymity, his wife and son immediately perish before him. And as with all convoluted plots penned by the Bard, there is an impossible catch, a mechanical loophole, a chance for mortal redemption. Here, time travels forward 16 years to a convivial springtime, when there is possibility and hope for a happy resolution.

Onstage
'The Winter's Tale'
» Where: The Shakespeare Theatre Company, Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW
» When: Through June 23
» Info: $43 to $95; 202-547-1122; shakespearetheatre.org

So while the essence of the original "Tale" remains, Taichman reimagines the soul of the story as something of a mirror, an esoteric exercise in opposites. There are strange doppelgangers at work here, between the sleek Italian court and the sleepy French countryside, and though it's a visual puzzle to keep up with characters well established in the first three acts and their jovial counterparts in the last two, audiences unfamiliar with such dramatic device might feel left in the dark. Because, while Taichman's concept might be interesting to explore, it's not so interesting to watch unfold onstage.

Taichman also takes baffling liberties with the script, staging stagnant narration before the final revelatory scene, in which her actors refrain from demonstrating action and instead recite the details of what happened next in a verbal, reverse game of show and tell. There are missed opportunities in her modern aesthetic, which could easily lend an ugly domestic violence bend to the first half of the evening, and Broadway talent Brent Carver is woefully underused as good servant Camillo.

Fans of television's "The Big Bang Theory" will recognize Mark Harelik in the lead role of Leontes (he plays Dr. Eric Gablehauser on the sitcom), and Hannah Yelland is a picturesque Hermione. They are joined by a talented handful of the usual suspects employed by the Shakespeare Theatre, including Ted van Griethuysen, Nancy Robinette and Tom Story, and Nico Muhly's surreal compositions are treated royally by Matt Tierney's keen sound design.

It's entirely debatable whether budgeting issues informed Taichman's decision to work with so few actors, but her odd experiment in creative casting renders this a stoic and unfortunately sterile "Tale."

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