Seattle Shakespeare Company opens its theater season with a delightful production of “The Winter’s Tale.” An outstanding cast brings Shakespeare’s 1611 play to life under the creative and brilliant direction of Sheila Daniels. Iambic pentameter reigns. And the audience can understand every word the actors utter.
Although the play has elements of tragedy, theater honchos define it as a comedy/romance. Some critics still refer to it as “one of Shakespeare’s problem plays.” But that is not the case with SSC’s pleasurable interpretation.
The first half may serve up psychological drama, but part two descends into comedy relief and romance. Of course, the Bard brings out his favorite tools — jealousy, trickery, obsession, pride, madness, poison, romance and guilt. He adds hilarious shysters and fools, as well as an onstage storm that almost rivals that of King Lear. And to make the story truly unique, the Bard throws in a bear (stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”).
It all starts when two Kings get together. Leontes, King of Sicily (Darragh Kennan) is visited by his childhood friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia (Reginald Andre Jackson). After nine months of hospitality, King P is preparing to return home, when King L asks him to prolong his visit. King P declines, so King L asks his charming wife Queen Hermione (Brenda Joyner) to use her powers of persuasion on King P. She succeeds where her royal hubby did not.
And therein lies the rub.
Suddenly Leontes’ imagination runs amuck. He works himself into a jealous rage, accusing his very pregnant wife of having an affair with Polixenes and that the baby she is carrying is not his.
Things go downhill. Leontes sends his aide Camillo (Galen Joseph Osier) to poison Polixenes. But instead, the honorable Camillo warns the Bohemian king, and together they flee Sicily.
Leontes prosecutes and imprisons Hermione. He refuses to to acknowledge his new baby daughter and orders another courtier, Antigonus (George Mount), to dispose of the baby girl with these instructions: “Take her to a remote location and leave her there to die.”
When Leontes is told that his Queen is dead, Leontes descends into self-destructive desperation and hopelessness.
Meanwhile in Bohemia, the abandoned baby is rescued by a kindly shepherd (Mark Fullerton), who names her “Perdita,” and raises her along with his lackwit, buffoonish son (Spencer Hamp).
Enter the local thief, peddler and all-around scalawag (MJ Sieber), an oxymoron of naughty but nice, wicked but wonderful. He dupes the gullible shepherd and his foolish son to entrust him with their money, then advises them to disguise themselves as “gentlemen.” Their ridiculous mincing and prancing mimicry of their “betters” is hilarious.
Fullerton has the look and mannerisms of the late Ray Bolger, except he’s taller. If you don’t know who Bolger is, check out the Tinman in “The Wizard of Oz.” Hamp is delightfully doltish. And we never tire of Stieber’s mischievous antics and perfect comedic timing.
If the first half of “The Winter’s Tale” is winter, the second is summer, as the plot waxes and wanes its way toward the Bard’s fairy tale ending.
Sixteen years have passed. Perdita (Jasmine Jean Sim) has become a beautiful maiden, ripe for romance. And she finds it with a handsome young shepherd, actually King P’s son Prince Florizel (Rudy Roushdi) in disguise. When word reaches the king about this situation, he too dons a disguise in order to spy on the young lovers.
Shakespeare deftly changes courses, setting up the happy denouement to come. The Bard’s characters make their way back to Sicily’s court where surprises and the promise of a miracle await them.
The action unfolds on Tommer Peterson’s simplistic set of columns, steps and chairs. Projections on the columns denote a change in décor and location. The stage becomes a palace, woodland, and a rustic countryside, among other venues.
Costumer Kelly McDonald dresses Sicily’s Queen and her court in lovely, jewel-toned velvet gowns — the gorgeous red one caused this vintage fashionista to drool with envy.
As Leontes, Kennan’s emotional roller coaster ride is challenging and complicated. First he makes us hate him, then pity him and later sympathize as he begs our forgiveness. And Kennan succeeds on all counts. As Polixenes, Jackson’s outstanding and likeable portrayal instantly wins our favor. His big-hearted persona is irresistible.
Amy Thone gives a powerful performance as the Queen’s loyal confidant and devoted defender, Paulina. Brenda Joyner delivers the Queen Hermione’s heart-wrenching despair with fear and fragility.
As for the two young lovers, Sims’ and Roushdi refresh us with the chemistry of first love.
“Daniels’ direction embellishes the script with creativity and charm. And the dynamic actors make the most of it, as the action shifts from the palace’s pomp and protocol to the lusty frolicking at the sheep-shearing shindig.
The Winter’s Tale” may not be performed as often as other Shakespearean works. But the opening night audience greeted like new found friend.
And this critic fell in love along with the rest.
‘The Winter’s Tale’ runs through Oct. 2 in the Leo K. Theatre at Seattle Repertory theatre. Tickets $31-$50. 206-733-8222 or seattleshakespeare.org.