So who knew that Bohemia was a playground for huge rainbow-hued butterflies? And who could suspect that the simple and celebratory-minded country-folk who also frolic there among their sheep would look like exiles from Dogpatch. Even the pretty blonde ingenue, oops I mean shepherdess, looks as if she were kin to Daisy Mae. But I’m rushing the plot a bit as things start off a lot less colorfully and, indeed, more dourly in the neutral palate palace in Sicilia where begins director Rebecca Taichman’s visionary staging of William Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.”
Anyone familiar with Taichman’s beautifully conceptualized, wondrously clever, even coy direction of “Sleeping Beauty Wakes” and “Twelfth Night” for the McCarter Theater, as well as with her memorable 2010 Off-Broadway direction of “Orlando,” will also admire her adventurous approach to a play that many have considered as one of the Bard’s lesser works.
Let’s dispel that notion of it being lesser, despite the judicious pruning of the text and the elimination of minor characters, in the light of Taichman’s magical treatment of the convoluted, preposterous plot with its essentially unmotivated exposition. Seen from her surreal perspective and through the unaffected but dramatically taut acting of her company, immersion into the plot isn’t all that difficult. A significant part of the immersion is due to designer Christopher Akerlind’s mood-enhancing lighting, especially a spectacularly lighted finale that is not to die for but to live for.
Shakespeare reveals his melodramatic hand early on. To be sure, there is more behavioral idiocy than psychological profundity in the story. What is profoundly chilling is the performance by Mark Harelik as Leontes, the king of Sicilia, who suddenly goes mad with jealousy because he suspects and then accuses, for no more reason than a smile and an affectionate touch, the visibly very pregnant Queen Hermione of having had an affair with Polixenes, their house guest, his best friend, the king of Bohemia. A brilliant directorial touch is letting us see what Leontes imagines he is seeing in a series of freeze frames involving Hermione and Polixenes. We may surmise, as Shakespeare did, that even best friends can overstay their welcome.
Paradoxically, after the play’s first half in which we see how a distressingly paranoid monarch wittingly slanders, humiliates, alienates, and even destroys most everyone he holds dear, we are treated to a second half all bathed in a sweetly sheep-shearing light, and resolved to making everyone live happily ever after. Perhaps, not one of Shakespeare’s greatest hits, but “The Winter’s Tale” makes up for its lack of coherence and cohesiveness in its inexplicable ability to entertain.
Taichman intrigues and entertains us with a production that starts off like a modern-dress concert-staging with some of the actors attending admirably and without affectation to the text’s rushes of exquisite lyricism while those not involved sit in chairs in the back of designer Christine Jones’ starkly handsome unit setting that serves in Sicilia as a spacious uncluttered palace room and as a meadow in Bohemia.
The spin that Taichman puts on her modernist approach is seen in the joyous behavior of the residents of Bohemia, whose faces we recognize belonging to the characters in Sicilia. It’s a lark to see six of the nine actors suddenly show up romancing and romping about in designer David Zinn’s loopy costumes in a setting whose primary reference to the pastoral is limited to a large painting of a green meadow and some cardboard cutouts of sheep. For our added pleasure, a trio of drunken musicians and the assembled shepherds and shepherdesses engage in the obligatory merry dance.
Though it is hard to forgive Leontes for his mindless, impetuous stupidity, the character comes back to haunt us. The difficult-to-swallow redemption of Leontes presents a challenge that Harelik eventually meets. But until this happens late in the play, we see him take his rage to an extreme, throwing his body on the floor in a convulsive fit of laughter after being refuted by the Oracle. What a dramatic turnabout for Harelik who, in the midst of all his anguish, is also assigned to delight us with some delectable scenery-chewing in the role of Autolycus, a roguish, one-eyed thief and ballad-monger.
Sean Arbuckle is excellent as the gallant but maligned Polixenes, as is Brent Carver as Leontes’ trusted counselor Camillo. Getting her say is Nancy Robinette as Paulina, the court loudmouth and as a drunken shepherdess. So does theater veteran Ted van Griethuysen, as Paulina’s husband. Hannah Yelland’s display of patience-in-adversity as that “precious creature” Hermione is heart-breaking. Heather Wood as the long-lost daughter Perdita and Todd Bartels as the a-wooing Prince Florizel are atypically disarming as the lovesick teens.
With its romantic innocence tainted by morbid undertones and its gorgeous poetry tested by melodramatic excess, “The Winter’s Tale” makes uncompromised appreciation difficult. However, Taichman’s ability to give us “The Winter’s Tale” with equal parts chills and charms is sure to win fans. There will likely be additional fans for this fantastical tale about the healing power of love as it has been so beautifully produced by McCarter in association with the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, D.C., where it will move following this engagement.
The Winter’s Tale, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m., through April 21. $20-$67. www.mccarter.org or 609-258-2787.