Royals are a touchy lot in Shakespeare’s late romance “The Winter’s Tale,” which turns on one monarch’s fit of blind jealousy, then flips back on another’s fiery parental indignation. In a triumphant production by England’s all-male Propeller theater company, which played Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater over the weekend as part of a brief U.S. tour, the heat of this kingly fever gets it full due, as does the silly pastoral romp at the play’s center. Director Edward Hall’s vigorous staging represents another auspicious U.S. appearance for the brand of playfully serious deconstructive storytelling favored by Newbury’s Watermill Theater, where Broadway’s new “Sweeney Todd” also was born.
It is not only the men playing women, and with a minimum of girlish frills, that gives this “Winter’s Tale” its disarming play-within-a-play feel. Michael Pavelka’s scenic design offers a distressed grid of translucent windows and a few Greek columns — a bit like a royal court remodeled into a cloister or prison yard. A wispy column of sand trickles, hourglass-like, into a child’s wagon at the show’s start. But those windows make this stark backdrop a malleable place, susceptible to the changing seasons of Ben Ormerod’s lighting design, from grim winter to green-up time.
The cast is likewise adaptable, providing live music and sound design from stageside, finessing multiple roles as well as some of the play’s thornier narrative passages with free-flowing ensemble flair. It should tell you most of what you need to know about this production’s spirit that the excellent Vince Leigh plays not only the tortured Leontes, the jealous king who sets the play in motion, but also a lowly sheep as well as the bongos.
Leigh’s success with Leontes is all the more striking because the role has always seemed a thankless two-note proposition: a fairy tale tyrant who acts harshly without justification, then spends the play dealing with the ruinous consequences. But Leigh finds unexpectedly rich reserves of pain and rue in this king’s brittle stubbornness. More significantly, director Hall doesn’t let Leontes off the hook with the show’s concluding rash of reconciliations. The figure of his young son Mamillius (Tam Williams), an apparent casualty of his parents’ marital discord, haunts Leontes throughout and provides a final, wrenching tragic grace note.
Hall’s production hits these somber notes as squarely as it tackles the loosey-goosey comic idyll at the play’s center. The latter is kicked off in appealingly ragged style by the leering cutpurse Autolycus (Jason Baughan), who dresses like a hippie carny and renders his opening song as a dissipated Dixieland debauch, even dragging one unlucky groundling to the stage for an impromptu dance. Later, during a sheep-shearing bacchanal, Autolycus’ mimed threesome with a pair of catfighting strumpets (Simon Scardifield and Jamie Beamish) comes off with an engagingly unseemly relish. There’s low-comedy craft, too, in the dim antics of shepherds played by Chris Myles and James Tucker.
Bob Barrett plays the sneakily loyal schemer Camillo with paradoxically passionate drollery, whether he’s serving Leigh’s intemperate Leontes or Matt Flynn’s more circumspect but similarly volatile Polixenes, or suggesting an escape route to the hotheaded Florizel (Bill Buckhurst). Giving the wintry mourning of Leontes a welcome kick is Adam Levy’s Paulina, whose feisty reproaches have a self-dramatizing ring that’s both captivating and harshly funny (enough so that one audience member quietly chimed in, “Go, girl!”). Levy’s is also a model of unself-conscious drag performance that sets the Propeller tone toward its female parts: In key distaff roles, Scardifield, Beamish and Levy stress the characters’ rough edges; they don’t so much play women as channel their theatrical energy into women’s silhouettes. Only Williams, as young Perdita, introduces softer, more androgynous shadings.
This is a boys’ night, in other words. At one point in the sheep-shearing festivities, the entire cast ends up clumped centerstage, jumping up and down in a sort of flower-child mosh pit. It’s a brief moment, but this image of rowdy, rousing Shakespearean dress-up seems an apt summation of the endeavor. Propeller’s extraordinary “Winter’s Tale” manages the feat one character describes as “doleful matter merrily set down, or a very pleasant thing … sung lamentably.”