One of Shakespeare’s late romance plays, The Winter’s Tale unfolds as King Leontes of Sicilia and his wife, Hermione, host Leontes’ childhood friend, Polixenes, the King of Bohemia. In this tragicomedy, an imagined love triangle between the three nobles arises when Leontes accuses Hermione of being pregnant with Polixenes’ child.
In Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s current production, paranoia and rage drive Leontes (played by Brent Vimtrup) to call for the murder of Polixenes (Josh Katawick) — though the two were once like brothers — and the imprisonment of his beloved wife (Kelly Mengelkoch), whom he channels his anger toward. As the first act ends in death and tragedy, we are also treated to one of Shakespeare’s most famous stage directions: Exit, pursued by a bear.
But the rest of the play takes a decidedly comedic turn. Set in Bohemia — depicted as a pastoral kingdom with zany characters — another love story emerges, which involves Florizel (Crystian Wiltshire), the prince of Bohemia, and his beloved Perdita (Courtney Lucien), the daughter of a shepherd with a secret and unknown royal lineage.
The Winter’s Tale is oft criticized by literary critics due to the two vastly conflicting styles in the play; the first three acts are a classic psychological tragedy, whereas the final two are comedic, resulting in a happy ending. Because of this, though the play’s first half is action-packed, the lightheartedness of the second half goes by much faster. The Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s cast handles this dichotomy well and is able to navigate through both tragedy and comedy without too much melodrama. However, at times, the second half feels like an apology to the audience for the intense drama of the first.
Due to the expense of materials needed to make the production feel realistic and polished, it can be rare to see a Shakespearean play performed in period costume and setting. Directed by Christopher Luscombe, Cincy Shakes’ production of The Winter’s Tale is adapted for the Regency era, which lasted between 1811-1820 — and each actor carries the pompous air of the period well.
Designed by Shannon Moore, the set is quite bare, but is composed of lovely marble columns that are expertly and realistically painted, which reflect both the Greek influences of the era and the original text. Similarly, the costuming, designed by Rainy Edwards, is completely gorgeous.
Despite the marvelous costuming and set design, the choice of the Regency era feels a bit careless. To put such time and effort into a setting different than the one in the text feels excessive when that newly envisioned era fails to make a statement about the time period or the work itself. The result makes for a production that is lovely to behold but confused in execution.
That being said, the production overall is tight, well performed and a pleasant blend of drama and comedy that never feels too heavy or too light. Nevertheless, some actors fall prey to the language, either struggling with the cadence of the verse or stumbling through the text’s word play.
Leslie Brott, who plays Paulina — Hermione’s close advisor and friend — steals the show in every scene in which she appears. Brott expertly captures the cadence of the Shakespearean language in a splendid, natural way. Even those in the audience that may have had trouble with the language’s complexity could easily follow each emotion and sentiment evoked by her performance as the fiery, wise elderly woman.
One crowd-pleasing element of the show is the music composed by William Cary Davenport, who also hilariously embodies several characters in the play’s second half. Combined with the whimsical movement choreographed by Darnell Pierre Benjamin, the musical moments and songs that pepper the Bohemian half of the play feel like a party.
Though The Winter’s Tale is a complex play that has to overcome unexpected shifts in the narrative, Cincy Shakes’ production navigates this ambiguity well; the final product satisfies both dramatic and comedic tastes and is suitable for playgoers who may be newer to Shakespeare or are old hands at absorbing the Bard’s works.
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s The Winter’s Tale runs through March 23 at the Otto M. Budig Theater (1195 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine). More info and tickets: cincyshakes.com.