The Winter's Tale, Folger Theatre

Let's be frank with each other. When someone mounts a production of The Winter's Tale, we all know that there's only one question that matters. It's the one we all ask and the one we're all looking forward to seeing.

The bear.

How do they do the BEAR?

In the case of Blake Robison's production at the Folger, the answer is tied into the entire production. Robison (like others before him) sized upon a simple exchange between the young Mamilius and his mother, Hermione, as she asks him to tell her a tale. Storytelling is at the heart of this production, and provides the frame for everything we see. The fantastical elements (random maurading bears and magical transfigurations of statues) are given the context of a fairytale told by a man to his young son. Hence, the bear is a toy held by the boy (who was lately Mamilius) as he playfully chases the man (lately Antigonous), and the reappearance of Hermione is truly a miracle conjured by Paulina.

There's a drawback, however. A frame story seems to imply that we NEED a frame in order to accept a story. The impression I'm left with is that Robison doesn't trust his audience, and he doesn't trust Shakespeare. If I spoke with Robison, I'm sure he would quickly contradict this reading of the frame, but I can't help but think Shakespeare knew what he was doing well enough.

So the frame makes me cranky in principle, even though it's generally used to good effect, particularly late in the play, when we find out masses of information second hand. Score one for Robison, but I stand by my overall point.

The less said about the set design, the better. The transition to Bohemia was unforgivably ugly.

Considering my qualms, what's worth seeing here?

Easy. Naomi Jacobson. It should surprise no one that her Paulina is magnificent, afire with passion barely kept in check; she is staunch, steadfast, and utterly true to her queen.

Other noteworthy performances include Lawrence Redmond as Antigonous and Not!Antigonous and Frank X as Camillo; the other cast members turn in solid work as well (including Connan Morrissey and Daniel Stewart), but these three are standouts.

Ultimately, Blake Robison's production is worth seeing. The Winter's Tale is rarely produced because it is a difficult play- the sudden jealousy of Leontes and the tragedy of Sicilia is tremendously tricky to get just right, especially when juxtaposed with the jubilant explosion of Bohemia in the second half of the evening. For those unfamiliar with the play or who are eager to find a production, this will certainly serve and well may it provoke further interest in a wonderful play. For those who have encountered Tales before and have their own particular readings which they cling to (such as myself), go for Naomi Jacobson. No, really, GO. She brings a special fire to the stage on every entrance.

Winter's Tale is a strange play, equal parts tragedy and comedy, torn between the unforgiving cold of winter and the bounty of spring. It's hard to get just right, and this production isn't quite there. It skirts close enough, however, to be well worth a look.


Unknown said…
Gosh, I thought the set was great. In the same way that people always wonder how a director will handle the "Winter's Tale" bear, I always go to the Folger wondering how the set designer will deal with the two columns, to say nothing of the balcony and the second-story windows. I've seen some pretty inventive treatments over the years, and I'd rate this production's in the top five, at least. (The design is by James Kronzer, btw.)

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