Maybe, just maybe, it takes a tender man to make a tough Paulina, the stalwart defender of a queen's virtue in "The Winter's Tale." That, anyway, is the feeling you come away with in the scintillating all-male production of the Shakespearean story of jealousy and exile by England's fiendishly resourceful Propeller Theatre Company.
It feels a bit strange, reporting that Adam Levy's Paulina is one of the surest, fullest portraits of this pivotal character that you're likely to see. But there you have it. As with the other men playing major female roles for this all-male company, Levy makes no campy theatrical claim on femininity. An off-the-shoulder tunic and an air of fierce resolve are all the accessories he needs. His performance conveys, in ways more profound than you anticipate, a lot about how actors synthesize experience to fit the contours of personalities shaped far differently from their own.
Which is why this "Winter's Tale" never stoops to the level of stunt. Propeller, under the direction of Edward Hall, son of London theater legend Sir Peter Hall, brought the production to the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater this week for a three-day stay that ended last night. The shame of it is that it wasn't three weeks. It came here as part of the center's "etcetera!" series. Three hours with Propeller reveals that there's nothing etcetera about what the company does.
Let this visit, please, be the start of a beautiful friendship. The city routinely displays its credentials as a haven for the classics and offers first-rate Shakespeare of its own, for sure. But it could also benefit from more regular contact with troupes that have a propensity for coloring Shakespeare in unorthodox shades. Exposure to the creative vitality of a company such as Propeller could only further ignite the imaginations of local audiences.
Propeller's emphasis seems to be on a muscular attack on the language of the play and a robust embrace of physicality. At times, in fact, the exuberant, youthful energy on display is of the barely contained sort you associate with college rugby teams and singing groups. In this production's rendering of high-spirited Bohemia, one of the two contrasting lands of "The Winter's Tale," the ensemble breaks into what sounds like lusty drinking songs -- set, of course, to Shakespeare's words.
And the way words are expressed in this production allows it to bear the full emotional weight of Shakespeare's poignant if bizarre story. The play, set in motion by the disastrous paranoias of the arrogant king, Leontes (Vince Leigh), is enveloped in the ideas of penance and remorse. Leontes's baseless accusations against his wife, Hermione (Simon Scardifield), and the Bohemian king, Polixenes (Matt Flynn), lead to death and exile for those Leontes has loved. The tale's bittersweet conclusion -- in which a statue of Hermione, through Paulina's sorcery, comes alive -- offers a sense of magical redemption, but also, everlasting regret.
Hall's staging encompasses all of these powerful feelings as it moves from episodes of sadness to frivolousness and back again. The costumes are stylish and contemporary and the setting (all by Michael Pavelka) is vaguely classical: The gray structure that stands in for both Bohemia and Sicilia could be a ruins. It's a satisfying amalgam of modernity and timelessness.
The company has built its own narrative frame for the story in the person of Mamillius (Tam Williams), the ill-fated son of Leontes, who plays with dolls the way his father cavalierly plays with the fates of family and friends. (The concept is carried to a heartbreaking conclusion in the final, moving fade to black.) There's a clever carryover, too, in the depiction of Antigonus and his mauling, committed by a teddy bear.
The skillful shifting of mood is most ebulliently illuminated when the story moves from Leontes's tightly wound court in Sicilia to 16 years later in the let-it-all-hang-out backwoods of Bohemia. There, Leontes's daughter Perdita (Williams again, in a lovely portrayal) is living among the bumpkins, who throw parties after shearing sheep. In one funny interlude, actors swathed in fleece offer syncopated baaaaaahs. As the trickster Autolycus, who does his own fleecing of the yokels, Jason Baughan is great fun, a bunko artist with an insatiable need for an audience. Chris Myles and James Tucker, playing the old and young shepherds, make a virtue of doltishness.
You will recall, of course, that men playing women was an unbreakable rule in Elizabethan London, and Propeller is not the first contemporary company to resurrect it. Several years ago, Britain's Cheek by Jowl troupe, for instance, staged an acclaimed all-male "As You Like It." What's surprising is, with actors this good, how quickly you accept the illusion. And Propeller's performers accomplish all this without wigs or falsetto voices or prosthetics.
Hermione, in fact, appears to suffer from male pattern baldness. And so what? Her -- and I don't use that term loosely -- reunion with Leontes loses nothing in translation. This "Winter's Tale" speaks to audiences in the passionate vocabulary of real pain and contrition.