The strangeness of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, now playing at The Yale Repertory Theatre in a sumptuous and stylish version directed by Liz Diamond, is ultimately its strength.  The plot yokes together elements that seem impossibly disparate, almost a test, from start to finish, of the audience’s ability to suspend its disbelief.  The play is generally called “a romance,” not only to differentiate it from comedy and tragedy, but also to indicate its novelistic elements.  The narrative arc of the play is rather complex, and also surprisingly and amusingly cavalier with audience expectations.

A whispered tale: Welsh (Mamillius) and Schulman (Hermione)

Early in the play, Mamillius (Remsen Welsh), the young son of King Leontes and Queen Hermione of Sicilia, says he will tell his very pregnant mother “a sad tale” because that’s “best for winter.”  He’s ripped away from his mother—object of her husband’s insane jealousy regarding his best friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia (Hoon Lee)—before he can tell it.  We never see the boy again as he dies offstage of health complications that follow his mother’s imprisonment for adultery and treason, but in some ways the story of the play is a tale a child might conceive of, with insane rage, exciting escapes, a man-eating bear, a colorful pickpocket, rousing rustic antics, true love, and magical reconciliations, to say nothing of a leap of about sixteen years in the middle.  It’s fun to trash Aristotle’s unities!

Though he’s offstage for the long middle section of the play, Leontes is key to the play’s success.  Here, Rob Campbell manages superbly to humanize a man suddenly driven to autocratic excess.  Driven by a restless jealousy, he destroys his family, losing a child, imprisoning his wife, and sending his newborn daughter to almost certain death in a remote locality.  In almost constant movement about the stage like a man in search of a comfort he once knew, Campbell’s Leontes is a victim of his own sick fancies to an extent that almost amuses him in a rueful, despondent way.  It’s a powerful performance matched by the noble suffering of his wife Hermione as played by Susannah Schulman.  Her trial scene enacts a dramatic staging of the worst sort of spousal dysfunction, an overt display of male tyranny that draws a passionate outburst from Hermione’s staunch friend Paulina (Felicity Jones) in a great confrontation scene where the outraged meets the outrageous.

Sicilia, in Michael Yeargan’s Scenic Design, consists of high walls that move to form corridors, or withdraw to provide open spaces, against brooding darks and raking light and the effective use of silhouettes in Matt Frey’s Lighting Design.  Together they make the University Theater stage a fascinating space, intimate and forbidding as needed.

The crowd-pleasing second half—after that infamous bear scene gets a notable enactment, together with Thomas Kopache’s soliloquy, as Time, delivered with an audacious flair for absurd necessity—takes place mostly in the kingdom of Bohemia.  Presented here as a rustic land of splendid, multi-colored clothes (Jennifer Moeller, Costumes), music (composer Matthew Suttor’s gypsy-like tunes), dancing (even with buffalo heads in Randy Duncan’s light-hearted choreography), and the love in idleness of Polixenes’ son Florizel (Tim Brown) and a stunning maiden called Perdita (Lupita Nyong’o) who seems to be more regal than her station as a lowly Shepherd’s daughter would suggest.  Both actors do a fine job of conveying both the idyllic nature of the lovers’ wooing and the tensions of their status, especially when Polixenes and his courtier Camillo (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, excellent in an under-appreciated role) spy on their nuptials in disguise.

The comic turns of Autolycus (Luke Robertson) should be the fun of this section of the play, but his scenes are a bit too broad and blustery, not quite up to the nimble clowning Rep audiences have become used to in Christopher Baye’s riotous productions.  That spirit is more in evidence in the scene where two gentlemen (Francis Jue and Adam O’Byrne) report on the reconciliations in the court of Sicilia with “you had to be there” hilarity.

After such comedy, what conclusion?  The final scene is all it should be: a chastened Leontes finds himself rich beyond his imagining, with nearly all his relations renewed.  The theme of winter, as a time of life, is impressed upon us by the aging royal couple exiting as silhouettes.  Their daughter has become a woman in their absence, and now, beyond the rages and the suffering they have endured, they have only their twilight together.  It’s a bittersweet triumph Shakespeare gives us, the lost time hovering over the happy conclusion like a certain little boy’s absence.

The Winter’s Tale, in this impressive production, receives an almost definitive treatment thanks to Diamond’s ability to render the true colors of the play’s varied palette.

William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale
Directed by Liz Diamond

The Yale Repertory Theatre
March 16-April 7, 2012

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