The Folger works its alchemy again with The Winter’s Tale (★★★★), Shakespeare’s weird and wonderful yarn of a jealous king who gets his comeuppance, but also his redemption. It’s a clever, fun, and emotionally intimate production, and, as is so often the case with the best of Folger, the vibe feels as if a tight-knit troupe of travelling players pitched up on a winter’s eve to offer a well-loved entertainment. There is humor, pathos, and a charming musical score — all delivered with a metaphorical twinkle in the eye.
At the heart of this beautifully curated warmth and familiarity is the ever-charismatic Eric Hissom, setting the tone as the Storyteller and buoying the mood in key supporting roles as Camillo and Antigonus (and a few others). Delivering it with a wry, low-key irony, Hissom is a crackling kind of presence — at once inviting and reassuring, but always also suggesting a tiny bit of challenge. You may laugh, his wide eyes seem to say, but are you sure who you should be laughing at?
Inviting Hissom’s innate skills as ringmaster, director Aaron Posner spins his own magic in balancing a pleasingly energetic pace with interludes that seem to stop time with their loving attention to human emotion. Just as with his Folger production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Posner is so confident in his vision, he makes room for all kinds of invention: the characters feel fresh, the humor irreverent, and the forays into anger, angst, betrayal, and, especially, fun, ring true because they are played with a 21st century immediacy. It’s an approach Posner acknowledges in his director’s notes, lauding his actors for digging deep into the process, praising their innovations, hinting at how much of themselves they bring to the roles. The tears are real.
And this is no mean feat, because The Winter’s Tale is hardly an easy play to make sense of. The mood veers from tragic to comic and back again, with moments of drama that go from zero-to-sixty without much rhyme or reason. A prime example is King Leontes who, in the first few scenes, accelerates from benign cocktail host to jealous husband and then utterly ruthless king — all in record time, and without any real backstory. If there is no way of avoiding this, much is answered with some thoughtful choices for the delusional king. By internalizing the man, Michael Tisdale evokes a psyche more neurotic than despotic, his fears and anger coming from a deeper place of agitation and self-doubt. It goes a long way toward convincing and it helps explain his accelerating ability to trap his own thinking.
Delivering the lion’s share of the emotional goods here — and making up for the dearth in Leontes’ rationale — is a fabulously convincing Katie deBuys as his wife Hermione, whom Leontes believes is deceiving him with his friend, Polixenes. Hers is the tragedy that runs like a dark current beneath the fun and frippery of the play and deBuys doesn’t have much airtime to deliver the goods. But as she faces the dungeon and the loss of her newborn baby, she couldn’t be more invested — her pain is powerfully palpable. It brings intimate dimension to the production and brings touching authenticity to the final reunions.
In this wonderfully cohesive ensemble, other standouts are Kimberly Gilbert, offering a truly original edge and plenty of humor to the thief (and musician) Autolycus, who ends up deciding to insert himself for good versus mischief. As the pure-hearted Paulina, Grace Gonglewski is an extraordinary presence with her husky voice, facility with the language and a face that speaks volumes. And if not quite in tune with the mood, Aldo Billingslea as King Polixenes is pleasingly at home with his Shakespeare and brings remarkable gravitas.
Like all of Folger’s productions, this is a showcase of young talent — but more so than ever here. As Polixenes’ son Florizell, Drew Drake is gorgeously charismatic but excellently understated. His command of the language is so good he can move seamlessly between a traditional take and a far more modern spin, and it works like it was always meant to be. As Perdita, Hermione’s long-lost baby found and raised in Florizell’s land of Bohemia, Daven Ralston has an otherworldly beauty that matches the magic — but far more importantly, she delivers her Shakespeare with a stunningly natural conviction. For great comic presence, Joshua Thomas shines as the Young Shepherd and Richard R. Henry brings the right tenor to his Old Shepherd.
Winter may be all but gone, but this beautifully-told tale will capture the imagination and warm the soul.
To April 22 at the Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Tickets are $35-$79. Call 202-544-7077 or visit folger.edu.
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