Mark Harelik at Leontes, Hannah Yelland as Hermione and Sean Arbuckle as Polixenes in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of The Winter’s Tale, directed by Rebecca Taichman. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
When you’re doing a “problem play” like The Winter’s Tale – where the first half is exclusively dramatic and high-stakes and the second half is mostly light, funny, and redemptive – how do you handle the balance? Well, if you’re Shakespeare Theatre Company and Director Rebecca Taichman you crank it all up to 11 and earn yourself the first time I can recall using the term “batcrap crazy” in a review here. The first half is the theatrical equivalent of being beaten with a sock with a bar of soap in it. The second reaches points of lunacy that Puck would be proud of.
I’m tempted to call this “as good as can be expected, given the unevenness of the source material,” but that seems lazy and unfair to both Shakespeare and this production. It’s also a blank check to do whatever you want for Taichman and her cast, which I’m not sure I think they earn. All told the show is an enjoyable experience with talented actors but some parts feel more like an endurance than an entertainment.
Mark Harelik as Autolycus in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of The Winter’s Tale, directed by Rebecca Taichman. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Take, say, the entire first half. Shakespeare allows no levity here, which is somewhat understandable when you’re dealing with jealous husbands, attempted poisonings, orders towards infanticide, and wasting deaths. But Taichman’s direction and actor Mark Harelik’s choices give us Leontes as constantly full of rage; he is not just certain, he’s wrathful and at the top of his lungs. I found it harder to make a pivot from rage to glee than I would from tragedy to comedy.
Harelik’s full-tilt performance serves much better when he’s inhabiting Autolycus and he digs out a number of belly laughs, though they’re somewhat muted by your PTSD from act one. He and Tom Story have fun interactions first during a pilfering of Story’s money and later when Autolycus is rattling off a list of possible ballads that Story’s shepherd character might like to buy. The whole show might be worth the price of admission just for the modifications made here to the ballad descriptions. “But chickens can’t fly! Blood sinew death!” “… maybe another.”
As is usual for Taichman’s productions, the sets are fairly minimal but full of lovely touches. The hundred-plus hanging lights in the last scene are beautiful and set a reverential scene for Leontes’ reunion with his long-lost wife, however odd the circumstances.
Shakespeare Theatre Company‘s production of The Winter’s Tale runs through June 23. Located at the Lansburgh Theatre 450 7th St. NW. Closest Metro: Archives (Green/Yellow). For more information, call 202-547-1122.