The Icing

He had already written Othello to explore the jealous impulses that precipitate a great man's tragic downfall, fashioned As You Like It to teach a few comic lessons about the strangely similar romantic yearnings of courtiers and country types, and penned a historical series about the Wars of the Roses to trace a tragicomic arc around humankind's attempts to control the natural order. But as William Shakespeare grew older, his work reflected a mounting awareness of the uncertainties, mysteries and wonders that define earthly existence. While his later plays might seem fragmented, contradictory and even overly contrived to some -- the endless slew of "recognition" scenes that conclude Cymbeline, for instance, prompted George Bernard Shaw to rewrite Shakespeare's fifth act and call his parody Cymbeline Refinished -- the Denver Center Theatre Company's production of The Winter's Tale is a superbly realized dramatic poem about loss, redemption and renewal.

In fact, the lyrical currents that twist beneath the play's prosaic rime are marvelously shaped into a vibrant whole by veteran director Laird Williamson, whose aesthetic, like that of the playwrights whose works he's recently staged, seems increasingly to embody a mature artist's appreciation of life's ambiguities and paradoxes. (Williamson directed a winning production of Calderon's Life Is a Dream a couple of years ago, a thought-provoking version of Stoppard's Arcadia the season before that and last year mounted another late Shakespeare play, Pericles, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.) Instead of layering the drama with an ultra-chic "concept" that references a specific place or time, Williamson opts for a more fantastical, less literal approach that, as performed by a splendid cast, communicates the Bard's philosophical musings with impeccable flair.

Set in the mythical medieval kingdoms of Sicilia and Bohemia and occasionally accompanied by strains that bring to mind the Eastern Orthodox Church's Byzantine chants (the original musical score was composed by Larry Delinger), the two-and-three-quarter-hour play is performed against a richly detailed backdrop of giant steel trees rooted in a cracked white floor that's meant to resemble a vast slab of alabaster (the set was designed by Robert Blackman). During Act One, the sculptural forest's segmented branches form a brooding latticework that suggests the Sicilian court's stark sterility as well as its ruler's icy paranoia.

Mad with a form of jealousy that's a product of his own mind (and exacerbated by the conjuring of three-horned creatures who drape him in red ribbons at the beginning of the play), King Leontes (John Hutton) accuses his pregnant queen, Hermione (BW Gonzalez), of having conceived the child with his friend Polixenes (Robert Westenberg), the King of Bohemia. When Hermione denies her mate's laughable contention that she's a "bed-swerver," Leontes appeals to a Delphic oracle for guidance, only to reject the divine entity's wisdom when it contradicts his suspicions. Consumed by his anger, Leontes imprisons Hermione and orders that his wife's newborn daughter be buried alive in the surrounding woods.

Similar to the action in Cymbeline, though, the doomed babe is "adopted" by a shepherd (Randy Moore) and his clownish son (Mark Rubald), who chance upon the basketed bundle of joy after the man entrusted with it leaves upon encountering a creature described in the most famous stage direction in all of Shakespeare ("Exit pursued by a bear"). Following an enchanting, almost Disneyesque conclusion to Act One, the Stage Theatre's industrial-strength arboretum is transformed into an inviting pastoral playground, complete with rows of waist-high flowers and an overhanging canopy of moss, for most of Act Two.

There, in the lush Bohemian groves, we meet the lost child, Perdita (Shannon Koob), now a teenager, and her boyfriend, Florizel (Brian Shea), who happens to be the estranged son of Polixenes. Bathed in a bucolic explosion of burnt-red, clay-orange and olive-green tones, the lovers and their fellow revelers engage in a life-affirming feast that's punctuated by a couple of sprightly dances. Eventually the play's divergent story lines intersect where they first began, and Leontes is compelled by his advisors and loved ones -- as well as by the presence of a magical statue of Hermione -- to forgive himself for wrongs committed sixteen years earlier. "It is required/You do awake your faith," one character tells him.

Williamson's sumptuous staging, which mixes naturalistic sentiment with otherworldly wonderment, is made all the more effective by Andrew V. Yelusich's resplendent costumes and Don Darnutzer's prismatic lighting design. In addition to the famous statue scene, Williamson spices up a typically dry episode by having two characters choose disguises from a dozen masks held aloft by six black-suited attendants. He also replaces the single, awkward appearance of Father Time that's called for in the script with a thrice-appearing female choric figure and alludes to the play's underlying religiosity without transporting theatergoers to the realm of biblical pageantry.

Williamson also elicits a series of convincing portrayals. Hutton perfectly conveys the "diseased mind" of a character frequently referred to by critics as an Othello who is his own Iago. As the queen, Gonzalez summons a mixture of fierce outrage and aching grief, especially when she makes an open-air, mid-winter defense of her virtue while dressed in a threadbare gown that pales in comparison to the thick layers of garments -- or are they the impenetrable strata of secure self-deceit? -- worn by the trial's legions of silent spectators. Kathleen M. Brady is a pillar of strength as Paulina, the only woman with the guts to stand up to Leontes and, later, the compassion to lead him into righteousness. As the roguish and opportunistic Autolycus, who opens Act Two with a song and plies his trade thereafter as a comic peddler of sorts, Jamie Horton performs with swaggering puckishness, if not always calculated daring.

Former Royal Shakespearean Tony Church lends authority and insight to the difficult role of Camillo, a courtly hanger-on who gets more second chances in life than one might think possible. Moore is a delight as the "Halloo!"-ing bumpkin whose heart is only slightly tarnished by the arrival of newfound riches, and Rubald carefully chooses opportunities to earn laughs that a lesser actor would take pains to milk. Westenberg locates a father's ambivalence about his son's choices without turning the poorly written part of Polixenes into a caricature. Koob makes an attractive "queen of curds and cream," occasionally revealing an instinct for feistiness that seems inherited from her regal mother, and while he's more ingratiating than dashing, Shea's Florizel is appealing enough. Along with the efforts of a solid supporting cast, who play everything from robed clerics to dancing nymphs to haughty party guests, Williamson's artful touches brilliantly evoke Shakespeare's twilight observations about "unpath'd waters" and "undream'd shores."

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Jim Lillie

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