Theater Review: A Sugar-Frosted ‘Winter’s Tale’

Shakespeare’s late romance, with its catastrophic opening capped by a supernatural-tinged happy ending, is not for those who like their tragedies undiluted.

Jonathan Epstein (Leontes) embraces Aaron Camillo in Shakespeare & Company's The Winter's Tale

Jonathan Epstein (Leontes) embraces Josh Aaron McCabe (Camillo) in Shakespeare & Company's The Winter's Tale

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare. Directed by Kevin G. Coleman. Staged by Shakespeare & Company at the Founders’ Theatre, Lenox, MA, through September 5.

Reviewed by Susan Miron

The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s late plays, often called a romance (along with The Tempest, Pericles, and Cymbeline). It also qualifies as a family tragedy, a comedy of mistaken identities, and, by the end, a Disney-like, family fairy tale.

I had gone to see this play to see the remarkable actor Jonathan Epstein, back at Shakespeare & Company after a 6 year absence. Director Kevin Coleman insisted on Mr. Epstein for the lead role of Leontes, king of Sicilia, and what moments of theatrical brilliance there were in this production largely belong to Epstein, who finds myriad compelling ways to show both jealous fury and bottomless grief on his face.

Like Othello, The Winter’s Tale begins with a scene of marital harmony, quickly followed by psychopathic jealousy, leading inexorably the death of a beloved spouse. All of this happens in the opening act when Leontes sees his very pregnant wife, Queen Hermione (Elizabeth Aspenlieder) in conversation with his boyhood friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia (played by the scene-stealing Johnny Lee Davenport).

Struck by a fit of paranoia, Leontes imagines the two are having an affair and that Hermiones’s baby is Polixenes’. The latter understandably flees, aided by Camillo, who had been ordered to poison him. Leontes, still insane with jealousy, has his wife imprisoned on grounds of adultery and treason (yes, treason). The baby, a girl, is born and handed to Leontes, who orders what he considers an illegitimate child banished to a faraway kingdom.

A trial ensues, with Leontes the sole judge. Rejecting the Oracle of Apollo, which had declared his wife guiltless, Leontes idiotically declares his wife guilty. After hearing their son has just died, Hermione collapses—what are her other options?—and we hear from her close friend that she has died. Leontes is horror-stricken by what he has done and he promises to spend the rest of his life in mourning. And who can blame him?

Elizabeth Aspenlieder as Hermione is a quiet-spoken beauty, who radiates sincerity and loyalty. Her only fault, as far as I could tell, is a bad, strawy wig. We don’t see Leontes again until the last scene, when the lovely Hermione is, for all the audience knows, a recently chiseled statue, looking just fabulous in a clinging white satin gown (a new wig would have been nice.)

When the scene changes to the seacoast of Bohemia, the minimalist set of the first half of the play has been replaced by a very colorful mural befitting the bucolic harvest scene, where a festival/bacchanalia is underway. This gives Shakespeare & Company a chance to strut their stuff—there’s plenty of dancing and music both recorded (and very well chosen) and plucked by talented players on stage. In his role as an ebullient, larceny-minded peddler, the terrific Jason Asprey steals the show, singing and charming all onstage and in the audience.

Elizabeth Asperlieder and Johnny Lee Davenport in Shakespeare & Company's The Winter's Tale

Elizabeth Aspenlieder (Hermione) and Johnny Lee Davenport (Polixenes) in Shakespeare & Company's The Winter's Tale

If you showed up after intermission, you could probably not imagine the fury and wrenching sorrow that colored the first half. For those still traumatized by the first half of this play, all this merriment is quite jarring. What ensues are the obligatory cases of mistaken identity in a comedy—16 years have elapsed since the first act when the Hermiones’s and Leontes’ baby girl, now 16, was banished. In the ensuing years, she has fallen in love with Polixenes’ son Florizel and is about to be married when lots of shenanigans ensue and eventually everyone ends up back at the Sicilian Court, where, of course, all the troubles began.

Here our happy endings begin. Leontes gets his daughter back, and Hermione appears as a statue, looking, he notices, quite a bit older than he remembers her. I always like a statue scene—think Don Giovanni, Don Carlo. Here we witness the radiant (statue of) Hermione coming (“back”?) to life to restore her family. The fairy tale continues.

It’s a bit much, unless you read Mr. Coleman’s explanation in the Berkshire Eagle. Shakespeare’s romances, Mr. Coleman notes, have to do with family ties and forgiveness and redemption and have some sort of fantastic magical scene. “They’re tragedies gone right,” he asserts.

I guess I like a tragedy gone wrong. And I like it undiluted. Mix it with an hour of comedy and I get disoriented. But if you like saccharine endings after horrible beginnings, this might be the play for you, forever after.

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