A review of Seattle Shakespeare Company’s graceful staging of “The Winter’s Tale,” on stage through Oct. 2 and starring local favorites Darragh Kennan, Brenda Joyner and Reginald A. Jackson. Sheila Daniels directs.
Among William Shakespeare’s parting gifts to stage literature was one of his final plays, “The Winter’s Tale.” And a curious offering it was: A tale that began in winter, with severe rage and tragedy, then shifted abruptly to summery romance and comedy.
Mastering the play’s split personality and segue from grim darkness to sunshine is still a challenge. So Seattle Shakespeare Company deserves a special bravo for managing it so gracefully, in a new staging of “The Winter’s Tale” at Seattle Rep’s Leo K. Theatre.
The director, Sheila Daniels, and a cadre of seasoned Seattle Shakes actors are especially attuned to the more problematic first half of the bifurcated plot: King Leontes of Sicily (Darragh Kennan) is suddenly consumed with toxic jealousy when his old friend Polixenes (Reginald Andre Jackson), king of Bohemia, gets too cozy with Leontes’ lovely (and very pregnant) queen, Hermione (Brenda Joyner).
‘The Winter’s Tale’
by William Shakespeare. Through Oct. 2, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Leo K. Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle; $31-$50 (206-733-8222 or seattleshakespeare.org).
Kennan has the Shakespeare chops to inhabit this crack-up so intelligibly and completely, we seem to be watching him lose his grip, wit by wit. “Too hot, too hot,” he hisses, mistaking innocent affection for cuckoldry. “To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.”
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Incendiary jealousy, sexual and political, is a common theme in Shakespeare’s canon (and in human nature). But here there is no diabolical Iago (a role Kennan also played deftly, in the company’s recent “Othello”) to egg Leontes on. The man whips himself into a froth, in soliloquies that spin paranoia and disgust into hysteria.
Kennan speaks the verse with fluid naturalness, and doesn’t just blast off. He travels through suspicion, to insecurity, to incredulity, on his way up to white-hot vengeance. (He has a few glimmers of relief when playing with his adorable young son — who happens to be played by Kennan’s real-life offspring, fourth-grader Finn Kennan.)
Hermione’s unblemished marital loyalty, and her terror, as hysteria hardens into cruelty, are also expressed believably and articulately by Joyner. So are the shock and concern of Jackson’s Polixenes and Leontes’ sage adviser, Camillo (a nuanced Galen Joseph Osier).
It isn’t until he offends the gods, and is berated by Hermione’s astute lady-in-waiting (a tough-love Amy Thone), that Leontes comes to his senses – but only after suffering inestimable loss.
Then the Bard slyly changes gears. On a mission of mercy in Bohemia to save a banished babe, Leontes’ courtier (George Mount) meets his doom in a stroke of outrageousness. (One of the best stage directions ever? “Exit, pursued by a bear.”)
That cues the bucolic gamboling to kick in, as father-and-son shepherds (Mark Fullerton and Spencer Hamp), rustic clowns, become instant foster parents. Leaping forward in time, their charming daughter Perdita (Jasmine Jean Sim) and her sweetheart Florizel frolic at a sheap-shearing carnival while a cutpurse and shrewder clown (a rascally MJ Sieber) makes merry by gulling country folk.
Not uncommonly, Daniels has moved up this scenario nearer to the present, but without gimmickry. Kelly McDonald’s Sicily court costumes (sumptuous gem-toned velvet gowns for the ladies) give way to simpler, lighter garb. Scenic designer Tommer Peterson’s tapestried pillars playfully change shape, and are burnished with a golden glow.
As in “As You Like It” and other comedies, Shakespeare has again contrasted the more rigid, formal world of the court with the festive, earthy spirit of the countryside. By linking and reconciling the two through love and marriage, rifts heal and royal families are united.
This adroit production accepts that fairy-tale tradition, and also the artifice of a back-from-the-dead ending in which a statue comes to life. With that, we’ve crossed over from tragedy to classic comedy, and it’s been a felicitous journey.