Rebecca Taichman’s collaborations with Shakespeare Theatre Company have left Washington theatergoers with indelible memories of eye-popping visuals. Crimson rose petals inundated her “Twelfth Night,” gleaming glass facades and red lacquer set the scene for a splashy “Taming of the Shrew” and “Cymbeline” unfolded under sprawling silhouetted tentacles of enormous branches.
As the director returns to Washington with “The Winter’s Tale,” she promises a bit of eye candy but not enough to overshadow the main attraction: the actors.
“I do tend toward these gigantic visual ideas, and there are some,” Taichman says. “But many of the solutions in this production were about what can the actor do without a ton of tech? What is the power of the actor? And really celebrating that, rather than loading it up with a ton of stage magic.”
One of Shakespeare’s last works, the genre-blending play is often considered problematic and is rarely staged. Early scenes signal tragedy, as King Leontes banishes his pregnant wife, erroneously believing her guilty of an affair. But a couple of mistaken identities later, the play morphs into a romantic romp with a mythical ending.
Taichman is taking a stripped-down approach, with nine actors playing about 25 characters.
“The idea for me was not about loading these doublings with a big heavy meaning,” Taichman says. “It was about celebrating the actors’ potential for transformation in a simple and pure way.”
Of course, glorifying the performer meant that casting was high on the director’s to-do list, and not every actor can handle the double or even triple duty this adaptation demands. Local standouts Tom Story, Nancy Robinette and Ted van Griethuysen are among those taking on the challenge. But the double role of King Leontes and a petty criminal named Autolycus seems especially demanding.
“The Autolycus-Leontes double was entirely dependent on getting an actor who was capable of it,” Taichman says. “If that hadn’t happened, we probably would have rethought the whole matrix.”
Veteran actor Mark Harelik, who has had memorable roles on stage and screen (“42,” “Election”), was game, and early feedback has been positive. A New York Times review of the production’s premiere at New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre Center applauded the actor’s “thrilling ferocity.”
That three-week run in Princeton gave Taichman and the cast a chance to continue mining the play for meaning, which has been both exhilarating and exhausting, Harelik says.
“We discover more about the play every day,” he says. “It creates kind of a fever that’s sort of like the gold rush, where you see that there’s gold, and you start digging, and you realize there’s a gold vein that goes down and down and down. It could be the whole mountain.”
The actor says deciphering the script has proven far more taxing than role doubling. In fact, switching characters, even in front of the audience, has bolstered the Bard’s recurring theme of the peculiar power of fakery. That just leaves the tricky business of clear transitions as the actors shed one character to embody another.
“There are a couple of times in the doubling [that] Leontes will have the last line in one scene and Autolycus has the first line in the next scene, and so the transformation has to be instantaneous,” Harelik says. “We’ve had to find a way to do that, which we have theatrically and kind of wonderfully — sort of in the sense of kids playing in the back yard, where one just announces, ‘Okay, now I’m the policeman and you’re the criminal.’ ”
The actors’ alchemy might be enough to bewitch the audience, but Taichman and her designers have a few flourishes planned for the fantastical final scene.
“It’s rigorously elemental, visually,” she says. “It equals everything else I’ve done at Shakespeare Theatre in terms of its visual power. It’s just extremely boiled down.”
Laughing, she adds: “Until the end.”
Through June 23. Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. 202-547-1122. www.shakespearetheatre.org. $43-$100.