Winter’s Tale has always been one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. I look at its peculiar structure as a challenge rather than an obstacle, and when it’s well-executed, the finale involving Hermione’s “statue” strikes me as one of the most dramatically satisfying scenes in all Shakespeare. And of course there’s that famous stage direction….
I’ve been visiting Ashland for long enough now to have seen several very good productions. I can say, however, that the 2016 iteration is among the very best I have seen. The opening half is beautifully rendered visually, in silver-gray formal garb that deliberately and elegantly evokes the atmosphere of Han-dynasty China court intrigue. The performances are clean and crisp throughout, even if Steven Michael Spencer is a trifle over-the-top as Autolycus in the second half. And this may be the only production of Winter’s Tale I’ve ever seen in which the first-act climax* and Hermione’s statue scene match one another for sheer dramatic power.
That’s about as much as I should say about this production’s bear, at least while the show is still running — it’s a scene that really has to be seen to be properly appreciated, and it’s all the more notable for not relying on complex technical trickery. The only real problem with the execution is that the staging — and in particular the artistic design it employs — created a visual expectation for the second half of the production (for me, at least) that’s completely abandoned by the time we come back from the intermission.
Herein lies my one notable reservation with respect to this production. Where the first-half portrayal of King Leontes’ Sicilia is visually striking for its artistic consistency, the show fails to show the same respect to King Polixenes’ Bohemia in its second half. Instead, we get a mishmash of Daniel Boone frontier garb with a 1960s rainbow-hippie counterculture palette — and while I suppose that’s nominally appropriate for some values of “Bohemian”, it nonetheless feels like a curiously lazy choice by comparison to the much more thoughtful visual development accorded to the Sicilian setting.
But if the Bohemian costuming feels a trifle slapdash, the uniformly strong performances — and the entire ensemble’s clear rendering of the play’s text — more than make up for it. In particular, Eric Steinberg is outstanding as King Leontes; I’d echo the observation from one of my tour-group companions that it’s to Steinberg’s and the production’s credit that this Leontes is not the merely mad tyrant one often sees, a choice that makes his reformation at the play’s conclusion both more believable and more dramatically charged. [It is a trifle startling to discover, on glancing into the back of the Festival playbill, that this is Steinberg’s very first turn at OSF, and that a sizeable portion of his resume consists of guest-star and recurring roles on popular TV series including Pretty Little Liars, Torchwood, and Supergirl. It will be very interesting indeed to see whether the Festival can persuade him to return in future years, because his Shakespearean stage career is definitely worth nurturing.]
*Strictly, of course, “exit, pursued by a bear” appears at III.3.57 in my 2nd edition of The Norton Shakespeare; I’m using “first act” above with respect to the show as staged, wherein that moment is the last the audience sees prior to breaking for intermission.