The Winters Tale
Reviewed by Julio Martinez
Through February 11
When The Winter’s Tale (William Shakespeare’s “problem play”) was originally published in the First Folio of 1623, it was grouped among the comedies. Archway Theatre’s adapter/director Michael Shane Eastman has certainly embraced this assessment, imbuing the often-dark history of Bohemia’s King Polixenes (David D’amico) and his boyhood friend turned enemy King Leontes (John Elsen) of Sicilia with an aura of comedic lightness.
When Leontes misinterprets the amusing opening scene’s casual chitchat between Polixenes and Leontes’ pregnant wife Hermione (Erica Godwin) as evidence of adulterous treason, the members of Leontes’ Royal Court downplay the king’s flimsy evidence and refuse to take his ensuing rage seriously. Leontes’ loyal retainer, Camillo (Tyler Rhodes), refuses his sire’s orders to poison Polixenas with a shrug of dismissal. There is even a bit of comedic interplay as Camillo’s Rhodes constantly interrupts Polixenes before he can drink the lethal brew. He then helps Polixenas flee from Sicilia.
With an impressive sense of deadpan humor and steely nerve, Hermione’s friend Paulina (Shea Donovan) scolds the King for his immaturity and brings Hermione’s newborn baby girl to him as evidence of her purity. Elsen imbues Leontes with the comical stature of not-ready-for-primetime sovereignty as he haughtily declares the baby girl to be illegitimate and orders Paulina’s husband, Antigonus, to abandon the child in a far off land. Meanwhile, Hermione swoons into unconsciousness and is declared dead.
In the Second Act, Shakespeare’s tale gives way to simplistic plotting. This, with the generous help of Eastman’s staging, allows the commedia characters to flourish. Left by Antigonus on the barren shores of Bohemia with a bag of gold and identifying trinkets, Hermione’s child, named Perdita (Bree Wernicke), flowers into a beautiful young woman, raised by the feisty if foolish Old Shepherdess (Emily Blokker-Dalquist). Perdita is in love with the King’s son, Prince Florizel (Christian Blake Splitt), unbeknownst to his father.
Eastman makes great use of the Clown (Matt Barsch), who smoothly takes on the personas of a master pickpocket, conman, and spy. One comedic highlight pits the fast thinking Clown against the Old Shepherdess and her husband as he covertly pilfers Perdita’s gold. The Clown then maneuvers the action back to the Court of Bohemia where Perdita and Florizel flee to obtain an order to obtain sanction from King Leontes. At Court, all is quickly resolved.
This Archway Theatre Company ensemble features a cast of 18, most of whom appear quite comfortable with Shakespeare’s language. There is an endearing quality to Hermione’s twinkle-eyed dialogue with Polixenes that gives full evidence of the wit behind Godwin’s discourse. And Donovan exudes the ramrod humor and exquisite comedic timing of a Lily Tomlin in her dealings with King Leontes. Meanwhile, Clare Lahey with Larose Washington offer a charming femme-against-femme rivalry during a sprightly country dance. The Winter’s Tale is this company’s opening production of 2017 and gives glad tidings to the future.
Archway Theatre, 10509 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun, 2 p.m.; through Feb 11; (818) 980-PLAY or www.archwayla.com. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes, one intermission.