Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
As a reviewer I rapidly grew blind to advance promotional material that promised "a magical experience," or "a fantastical fable that will transport you..." and so forth. What a marvelous surprise then when a show like Seattle Shakespeare Company's "The Winter Tale" actually delivers on all of those promises. This utterly delightful and perfectly shaped production, directed by Mark Harrison, presents one of the Bard's lesser and less-produced comedies with pure imagination and theatrical excellence. It really is enchanting, and populated by this accomplished and well-directed ensemble it was an entirely entertaining and satisfying evening.
The story concerns King Leontes, whose jealousy generates suspicion toward his wife, Hermione, and toward the visiting Polixenes, King of Bohemia. That results in a great split in the friendship between the two Kings. Leontes banishes his wife, Hermione, in spite of the Oracle proclaiming her innocence. Their young son, Mamillius dies of grief, and the newborn daughter, Perdita, is ordered to be abandoned on a distant isle, but then when her transporter is killed by a bear, she is snatched away by a shepherd who raises her. Hermione herself is believed dead. Sixteen years later, Perdita returns to fall in love with a prince, and a statue of Hermione is somehow magically restored to life. It's a pretty far-fetched story, but a charming amusement.
The cast has exactly the right tone and weight for this slight but fanciful story, and the physical production couldn't be better. The use of Asian-style puppets, dance, music and theatricalized objects, all on Jennifer Zeyl's gorgeous scenic design, with fine costumes, lighting and sound design make this one of the most beautifully built productions I've seen in some time. The actors have all found exactly the right blend of self-serious ego and oblivious foolishness. The purely comic bits, in particular the work of Troy Fischnaller and Troy Miszklevitz were inspired, ridiculous and expertly contrived. In the more serious roles, Paul Morgan Stetler gave Leontes subtle uncertainties that, combined with his royal office, helped explain his colossal mistakes. Opposite him, Jack Greenman made the wronged King Polixenes suitably sympathetic. I was also particularly impressed with Elena Wright as the abandoned princess, Perdita. I loved her plain-mannered beauty, which made her common upbringing consonant with her inherent nobility. Spencer Clark also gave an effective performance as the child Mamillius.
In many ways, the entire production had a pervasive sense of childhood freedom and imagination. The fearsome bear, created by elements of a great face and mouth conjoined on the ends of poles, was both toy and terror. The travels between the kingdoms, accomplished with toy boats traversing the stage on waves of wire, the oddly mechanical puppet of time, all of these elements felt less like theatrical invention than pure make-believe, the story less like fantasy than just pretend.
This may not be an important piece of Shakespeare, but it was certainly a great evening in the theatre. I loved this show, and I loved the obvious mastery on display as I watched and listened to superior storytellers weaving a genuinely enchanting spell.