The magic begins as the audience enters the theater. Lit by a single beam of light, grains of sand fall from the ceiling into a child's wheelbarrow as a youth dressed in pajamas looks on. A prominently displayed hourglass completes the scene. Time is a central metaphor within the play, eventually becoming a character played by the same actor (Tam Williams) who watches these grains fall as if the sand has escaped the confines of the hourglass. Throughout the production, and particularly the first act, Williams is seen observing the action -- though it's unclear whether he's doing so as Time or as Mamillius, the young prince of Sicilia, whom he portrays once the play begins in earnest. (The two characters are ambiguously conflated, and Williams wears the same costume as both.)
The Winter's Tale concerns King Leontes (Vince Leigh) of Sicilia, who becomes irrationally jealous of the innocent affection between his wife, Hermione (Simon Scardifield), and his best friend, Polixenes (Matt Flynn), the king of Bohemia. Hermoine soon gives birth to a daughter, Perdita, whom Leontes refuses to acknowledge; instead, he commands that she be left to fend for herself in a far-off land. As befits the play, Hall's staging is notable for both intense drama and moments of whimsy. When Leontes spits on his faithful queen, the audience gasps. Later, a comic bit of note-passing between Polixenes and his trusted aide Camillo (Bob Barrett) establishes a lighter tone, but this is upended when Polixenes lashes out at his son in a terrifying rage that mirrors the earlier scenes with Leontes.
The ensemble is mostly excellent. Leigh captures Leontes' violent mood swings, believably displaying the king's stubborn cruelty as well as his heartfelt repentance. Scardifield, who was a joyously mischievous Puck in Propeller's Midsummer, plays a quite different role here, imbuing the queen with a quiet dignity. Adam Levy is both commanding and hilarious as the spitfire Paulina, who comes to Hermione's aid in her darkest hour and defies the king. Bill Buckhurst is endearing as Paulina's husband, Antigonus, a conflicted lord who is unwaveringly loyal to his king and unable to stand up to his wife. The actor is even better in the second act as Florizel, son of Polixenes, who falls in love with Perdita (Williams again); Buckhurst and Williams have a combustible onstage chemistry. Jason Baughan makes a strong first impression as the rogue Autolycus but pushes the character's bawdiness a bit too hard in his subsequent appearances. Chris Myles and James Tucker as the older and younger shepherd (respectively) usually hit their comic marks, but their scenes with Baughan fall flat.
The gender-bending of the production follows the tradition of Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company in that there is no attempt made to hide the actors' maleness. Chest hair frequently peeks out from beneath the dresses worn by the ensemble members. While some of the women's roles are played for obvious laughs -- e.g., a pair of shepherdesses expose their bare midriffs -- the major female characters are treated more seriously.
The entire cast is involved in creating the production's lush soundscape; the company members play drums, flute, trombone, piano, guitar, and a host of other instruments to set the mood for the play's various segments. They are aided by Ben Ormerod's atmospheric lighting and the modern dress costumes (with occasional quirky flourishes) of Michael Pavelka, who also designed the set.
The Winter's Tale is generally considered one of Shakespeare's "problem plays," since it begins as a tragedy but then becomes more comedic once the action shifts to the kingdom of Bohemia 16 years after the events of Leontes' tyrannous actions. The happy resolution to the play also defies conventional tragic structure, but in Hall's production, the ending seems much more bittersweet and disturbingly ambiguous. As usually played, Leontes repents his actions and receives an unexpected reward when he reunites with his lost daughter; as performed by Propeller, Leontes' redemption is uncertain.
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