If only life offered the second chance Shakespeare so magnanimously grants the monstrously miscalculating Leontes of his late-career romance “The Winter’s Tale.” Sixteen years of penitential loneliness — for making the false accusations that stop his family’s hearts — result for Leontes in redemption of a fantastical order, the sort that we all know can only happen in a play.
The magnitude of forgiveness documented in director Rebecca Taichman’s taut, visually arresting and tenderly wrought new production for Shakespeare Theatre Company is itself a kind of magic. And darned if, in inspirational sync with her designers and cast — particularly, Mark Harelik as Leontes — she doesn’t compel us all to a wistfully moving consideration of the acts of this foolish king.
“The Winter’s Tale” is a long, twisting path to a pardon. The climactic moment, when Paulina (Nancy Robinette) reveals to Leontes the statue of his “dead” queen Hermione (the radiant Hannah Yelland) is, in the best versions of the play, a wrenching contemplation of what we all stand to lose over a lifetime, and, of what, filled with regret, we would give anything to regain.
Taichman’s previous assignments for the company have included, most significantly, a “Taming of the Shrew” that placed fuming Kate in a body-conscious contemporary culture of the kind that could drive any smart woman to violence. Her “Winter’s Tale,” a co-production with Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center, is as complexly emotionally textured as her “Shrew” was topically savvy. The proof is in the feelings stirred by that marvelous reunion scene, rendered onstage at the Lansburgh as a miracle of expressly theatrical proportions.
Hermione’s whereabouts for the 16 years since her husband’s slanders about her fidelity were declared baseless by the gods have long intrigued scholars and audiences alike. (At end of her trial, she collapses at the news of the death of her son, and Leontes is told she is dead.) This handsomely modern-dress incarnation makes no attempt to answer the question. Rather, it takes advantage of the enduring allure of the mystery, in the dazzling physical environment created by set designer Christine Jones and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind.
A red curtain parts to reveal Yelland, draped in a flowing gown by costume designer David Zinn and framed by four sets of proscenium arches and a profusion of dangling light fixtures and bells. As Robinette’s rock-solid Paulina gives a cue, Yelland stirs and with her the music, lights and bells do, too. Paulina’s dark arts are a mirage. It’s the theater’s spell that conducts the enchantment.
The firm foundation for the affecting reconnection of Leontes, Hermione and long-lost daughter Perdita (Heather Wood) is in the handling here of the “Tale’s” harsh first act, at Leontes’s court in Sicilia. The genesis of Leontes’s jealousy — he’s enraged by Hermione’s attentions to the visiting king of Bohemia, Polixenes (Sean Arbuckle) — remains forever elusive. But Akerlind brings the lights down around Harelik to clearly convey a Leontes caught in his own clouded, claustrophobic world of suspicion.
Harelik’s bundle-of-nerves portrayal aids in the illusion, as well; he speaks Leontes’s profanations as if suffering from some kind of dementia, complicated by a king’s conviction of infallibility — a common affliction among Shakespearean royalty.
His subjects, like noble Camillo (the excellent Brent Carver) see him as sick: “Good my lord, be cured of this diseased opinion,” he declares. The illness of thought is confirmed by the robust amity of Yelland’s Hermione, who delivers the queen’s speech at her brief trial with a ferocity that makes Leontes seem all the more pathetic.
Taichman’s vision for the piece is fresh and intimate. Nine actors — all commendable — play all of the roles, and some of the doubling in parts offers clever commentary. When the action moves from stark Sicilia to pastoral Bohemia, Harelik assumes the role of pickpocket Autolycus; the self-deceiver of Act 1 becomes the master dissembler of Act 2. The eternally valuable Ted van Griethuysen gives two old men comparable warmth: the doomed Antigonus, who carries baby Perdita into exile, and the Old Shepherd, who moments after Antigonus dies at the paws of a bear, discovers the discarded baby. With some lyrical justification, Wood not only plays both the daughter and son of Leontes, but also embodies Time, narrating the passage of years as the foundling princess becomes a teenager before our eyes.
Those who know “The Winter’s Tale,” surely a solid bloc in the Lansburgh, might detect some tinkering in the Bohemian scenes. Not the least of these changes has to do with a kind of directorial sleight of hand: Here, the bumpkins Mopsa and Dorcas are cardboard cutouts of sheep. And the lyrics to some of the ballads Autolycus sings (to the delight of Tom Story’s sweetly unassuming Young Shepherd) sound as if they might have gone through revisions in the writers’ room at “Saturday Night Live.”
These are jolly tweaks that do no harm to the madcap vaudeville of Shakespeare’s Bohemia. If anything, they are acts that conform to the play’s healing spirit, its movement from the irrational precincts of rabid mistrust to a harmonious plateau of compassion and reconciliation. In blazing her own trail through Shakespeare’s tale, Taichman returns us to the consolingly familiar terrain of the playwright’s massive heart.
by William Shakespeare. Directed by Rebecca Taichman. Set, Christine Jones; costumes, David Zinn; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; composer, Nico Muhly; sound, Matt Tierney; music direction, Stephen Feigenbaum; choreography, Camille A. Brown; vocal coaching, Gillian Lane-Plescia. With Todd Bartels. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through June 23 at Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or go to www.shakespearetheatre.org.