Few people in the theater work as diligently at demystifying the classics as Aaron Posner. In his own plays, he has found his metier in postmodern commentary on Chekhov (see: “Stupid F---ing Bird”); as a director, he has illuminated Shakespeare through lively and provocative uses of music, illusion and careful reinterpretation of text.
In his best work, Posner distills the essence of a play in ways that intensify its emotional flavor or give it a context conversant for an audience today. Think, for instance, of the “Macbeth” at Folger Theatre on which he collaborated with magic maven Teller, or his American Civil War resetting of “The Merchant of Venice” (as “District Merchants”) that dealt with both racism and anti-Semitism.
Posner is trying something different, it seems, with his latest Shakespeare production for the Folger, “The Winter’s Tale,” and what that constitutes is hard to put one’s finger on — and harder to like. Directorial conceits are applied delicately, in keeping with the gentler threads of this Shakespearean romance, balanced on the precarious edge of comedy and tragedy. But there’s a deficit of energy, imaginative and otherwise, on the stage on this occasion, the result being that the little statements articulated here never develop the kind of momentum that would form a bigger one.
And an audience needs to feel, as always, that there is some urgent purpose to an encounter with this peculiar fairy tale, about a king, Leontes (played by Michael Tisdale), whose outrageous jealousy tears his family apart, and that progresses to a movingly magical ending. The problems start with the newly invented role of a guitar-strumming narrator: Eric Hissom is the agreeably down-to-earth actor cast in this and other key parts — most of the other 11 actors also double and triple in roles — and his casual shrug of a performance seems a tonal mismatch for the lump-in-the-throat emotionality of the evening.
Similarly, the incidental musical accompaniment, amounting at times to a few wan plinks on a violin or thumps of a drum, provides an alienating, rather than moodily advantageous, counterpoint. Even when the action shifts from a funereal Sicilia — where Leontes’s ludicrous suspicions lead to the jailing and seeming death of his faithful wife, Hermione (Katie deBuys) — to bucolic Bohemia, the merriment that we’re accustomed to feeling is not apparent.
The actors demonstrate wildly varying degrees of comfort with Shakespeare’s language, so much so that the wholly potent and beautifully spoken performance of Grace Gonglewski, as Hermione’s fierce defender, Paulina, seems to originate in another production. Among the other players, Daven Ralston is a lovely Perdita, the king and queen’s long-lost daughter, and Josh Thomas, with perhaps a bit more coaching, would make for a truly hilarious clown of a Young Shepherd.
“The Winter’s Tale,” as Shakespeare buffs know, contains the canon’s funniest stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” Alas, an inspired treatment of this moment will have to come another time. On this night, too much of what makes the tale memorable remains in hibernation.
The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Aaron Posner. Sets, Luciana Stecconi; costumes, Kelsey Hunt; sound, Patrick Calhoun; original music, Liz Filios; production stage manager, Julia Singer. With Kimberly Gilbert, Aldo Billingslea, Drew Drake, Richard R. Henry, Emily Kaye Lynn. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Tickets: $30-$79. Through April 22 at Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE. Call 202-544-7077 or visit folger.edu/theatre.