The Winter's Tale, part of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, is a peculiar hybrid of a play. It begins as tragedy, then lurches into full comic mode. There's a sixteen-year gap in time, more comedy, and it's back to gravitas for the final scenes. The play contains many familiar tropes -- the loving wife, wrongfully accused of adultery, the baby left in the wilderness to die, the prince who falls in love with a beautiful shepherdess and discovers that his shepherdess is of royal birth. But Shakespeare's primary focus seems to be more bittersweet. He's writing about love and loss and, as hinted at by the title, the cycle of the seasons and the way it mirrors our passage through life.
As Sicilia's King Leontes watches the interplay between his pregnant wife, Hermione, and his lifelong friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia, he becomes convinced that the two of them are sleeping together. His transformation from benevolent host and loving husband to jealous, raging tyrant is sudden and absolute, reminiscent of Othello's descent into brutishness when he believes Desdemona has deceived him. He orders a lord, Camillo, to poison Polixenes, but Camillo instead helps the Bohemian king to escape. Leontes takes this as validation of his suspicions and proceeds to destroy his entire family. Hermione is held in captivity, where she gives birth to a daughter; Leontes orders the child abandoned to the elements. The couple's young son, Mamillius, dies of grief, and Hermione collapses when she hears the news. She is carried off the stage unconscious, and Leontes is told that she, too, has died.
Like every fairy-tale retainer ever sent on a child-killing mission -- the huntsman in Snow White; Pisanio, ordered to murder the adult Imogen in Cymbeline; the shepherd who was supposed to leave Oedipus to starve -- the likable Antigonus, who had tried to talk Leontes out of his delusions, grieves as he sets little Perdita down on a desolate stretch of coast, thoughtfully placing a bag of gold and an identifying description beside her. But the gods are implacable, and he's soon run off the stage by a bear.
And then all of a sudden, the tone changes. One of those annoying Shakespearean clowns pops up to describe cheerfully to a shepherd how he saw Antigonus's ship with all its crew go down at sea, while Antigonus himself was ripped apart and eaten. Sixteen years pass, and the action remains rollicking and pastoral. Raised by the shepherd and his father, Perdita grows into a beautiful young woman, and King Polixenes's son, Florizel, falls in love with her. You almost feel as if Shakespeare were painting by the numbers here. These are all stock figures, including the mischievously clever thief Autolycus (well played by Diomedes Koufteros). Perdita and Florizel have some pretty speeches, but this part of the play doesn't have half the emotional juice of the opening scenes. There is one jolting echo, however: Realizing his son intends to marry a peasant, Polixenes flies into a vicious rage, cursing and terrorizing the couple and those around them.
Shakespeare's disinterest in these characters seems confirmed by the speed with which he wraps up this part of the plot. Perdita's reunion with her repentant father, Leontes, even takes place off stage. At the end, as at the beginning, the play's focus is on Queen Hermione, whose apparent return from the dead is reminiscent of the coming of spring to an ice-locked world.
Still, there are tantalizing and evocative characters. We never fully understand the emotions that make monsters of both Leontes and Polixenes. We don't know whether to criticize or admire the stubbornness with which Antigonus's wife, Paulina, defies Leontes -- though we certainly honor her determination to protect her queen. But we're aware that such complex and self-contradictory people exist. Hermione, too, is a wonderful character, as strong and determined as she is patient, good and beautiful.
Director Cynthia Croot has mounted a thoughtful production, and all of these roles are portrayed nicely. Stephen Weitz is strong and convincing as Leontes, and Sean Tarrant makes an affable Polixenes -- though it must be said, you sense just an edge of humor to even his serious scenes, and he has to fight for his dignity under a hat shaped like a spiked doughnut. Bridgit Antoinette Evans is suitably ambiguous as Paulina. Kyle Lewis, as Mamillius, is one of the most natural and appealing child actors I've seen in a while, and Matthew Penn is particularly good as Antigonus. As Hermione, Aimee Phelan-Deconinck combines physical grace and expressiveness with pure, raw passion, and gives this production its spine.
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