“The Winter’s Tale” is one of Shakespeare’s most rarely produced works, and upon seeing it and realizing the challenge inherent in its structure, one can understand why. The first act is a very heavy tragedy, with a lead character so maddened by jealousy that he makes Othello look like a model spouse. The second half, however, is much more of a comedy, such a severe shift of tone that only the most skilled artists could believably mend the disparate halves together. Fortunately, A Noise Within is expert in its understanding of Shakespeare, and its current production of “Tale” is an impressive and effective demonstration of this vital company’s many strengths.
Leontes (Geoff Elliott), king of Sicilia, is hosting Polixenes (Stephen Rockwell), the ruler of neighboring Bohemia, when he makes a terrible error. He decides that his loving and pregnant wife, Hermione (Jill Hill), has been unfaithful to him with Polixenes, and that the child she carries must thus be illegitimate. His madness leads him to command his old friend Camillo (William Dennis Hunt) to murder Polixenes, and to have his newly born infant taken out in the wilds of Bohemia to be left to die. Leontes only realizes upon the supposed death of Hermione and his young son that he has been tragically wrong, but the despair of winter will eventually be modified by the redemption of spring.
Elliott is fierce as Leontes, wielding angry words like thrown accurate daggers, holding a gun to his infant daughter’s head in one indelible moment. He’s so strong in the first act, however, that the repentant Leontes of the second act never entirely steps out of shadow, which is more a fault of the play than the actor. Rockwell is quite good as the initially blameless Polixenes, who later is unduly harsh to his own son. Hill offers one of her best perfs as the wronged Hermione, and her last scene is truly affecting.
Hunt is a picture of long-suffering forbearance as Camillo, and Steven Weingartner is memorable as the doomed Antigonus. Deborah Strang is excellent as the righteously furious Paulina, defending the Queen’s virtue and ever vigilant in reminding Leontes of the enormity of his crimes. Mitchell Edmonds, Martin Swoverland, and Tom Beyer are all amusing in comedic roles.
Directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott provide this sad tale with a properly haunted ambience, and the final vision of two ghosts standing alone on the stage, the cost of Leontes’ madness, is undeniably moving. Darcy Scanlin’s versatile set, a deeply turquoise expanse that shifts from winter to spring via the simple removal of a backdrop, is transfixed with a series of metal poles, a neat visual symbol of how the king is pierced and martyred by jealousy. Endre Balogh’s original violin compositions and his live performance of same add a sweet counterpoint to the darkness of the story.