HARTFORD — It’s been five years since Hartford Stage has presented a work of The Bard’s, with the last being the abysmal Henry V in 2018. Granted, the COVID-19 pandemic and shut down of theaters across the country has created an artificial gap between Shakespeare productions.
So I was glad to see that they have returned to Shakespeare with The Winter’s Tale, directed by Melia Bensussen, running through May 7 at their theater at 50 Church St. in Hartford, Connecticut.
Works of Shakespeare have been a long tradition at Hartford Stage. When Darko Tresjnak was artistic director, he made it a point to do one piece of Shakespeare a year. The current artistic director, Bensussen, once told me that she doesn’t intend to be as stringent about it as Tresjnak, but that the company would continue to produce plays of Shakespeare, maybe just not every year, which I agree with her. There are so many classic works of theater, from Sophocles and Aristophanes to Goethe and Moliere, that we can draw from, not just Shakespeare.
Still, the Hartford Stage audience appeared to be in readiness to see another Shakespeare play as it was one of the biggest opening night audiences I’ve seen at Hartford Stage since reopening after the pandemic.
What’s even better is that this is a great production, and the best directed show of Bensussen’s since she’s taken the reins of Hartford Stage, with a play of Shakespeare’s that is incredibly difficult to get right due to it being one of his “problem” plays, in that the first three acts plays out like a drama and the last two play out more as a comedy, creating an imbalance in contour of the story. It also has a generally unlikable leading character in Leontes the King of Sicilia, played by Nathan Darrow, who in the first minutes of the play expresses his unfounded suspicions that his wife, Queen Hermione, played by Jamie Ann Romero, is having an affair with his friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia, played by Omar Robinson.
Leontes’ jealousy becomes his own undoing as he arrests his own wife for infidelity, his son, Mamillius, played by Jotham Burrello, dies of wasting sickness, and his newborn daughter, he orders to be abandoned somewhere to die under the belief that she is the illegitimate child of Hermione and Polixenes.
It’s all very horrific and tragic indeed, at least until an old Shepherd, played by Jeremy Webb, finds the abandoned infant and raises her as his own in Bohemia.
The play takes a sharp turn in tone from there as we jump 16 years into the future and the infant, Perdita, now a teen played by Delfin Gokhan Meehan, is being courted by Polixenes’ son, Florizel, played by Daniel Davila Jr. with no awareness to her true heritage by either of them. Perdita, being a commoner, or at least believed to be a commoner, and Florizel a prince, they must keep their romance a secret from Polixenes, and what drama may come if any of them discover she is the daughter of Leontes and Hermione.
Bensussen overall handles the cast exceptionally, and her understanding of the text is exemplary as the drama building to the end of Act 3 is relentless to the point of frustration as we helplessly watch Leontes make mistake after mistake leading to his ruin. Her transition in Act III, Scene III, where the play transitions from drama to comedy is deftly handled and though shocking, it doesn’t feel forced, but oddly organic in a twisted sort of way, involving a bear.
This is also a testament to the quality of the cast. Particularly Webb, who has to transition from Antigonus, the Sicilian lord who is tasked with abandoning the child, into the Shepherd who finds Perdita in the same scene. He and John Maddaloni, who plays the Clown, who is the son of the Shepherd carry much of the story’s humor in the last two acts, along with Pearl Rhein, who plays Autolycus, a rogue who handily swindles and fleeces the residents of Bohemia in magnificent comical fashion.
What is satisfying is Bensussen’s ability to find the humor where it may be found in the first three acts, which helps prime us for the rest of the play, particularly with the role of Camillo, another Sicilian lord, who disobeys Leontes’ order to arrest Polixenes, choosing to help him flee the Sicilia for Bohemia. Played by Carman Lacivita, he has brilliantly found the humor in Camillo’s observation of political culture and politicians’ inability to accept error. His scenes with Robinson are some of the best in the play as their repartee is sharp and full of wit.
As far as the cast goes, the only weak spot is Darrow, who seems to speak low enough from his center pitch in an effort to sound more authoritative that it just makes him sound moody instead of a complex array of emotions that would consume a person of such rage and jealousy.
The design is perplexing as there are elements that I absolutely love and one that is quite befuddling.
I loved Whitney Locher’s costume designs, especially the workings of the Bohemian costumes in Act 4.
I thought that the upstage scenic design by Cameron Anderson was awesome. The snowy rolling hills that characters tread upon before coming down stage is complemented by Evan Anderson’s lighting. After intermission, that part of the set turns into a thriving summer time field.
But that tree center stage is an awful obstruction. Particularly from where I was sitting, and I’m sure it became problematic in other parts of the house as well as there were times a character would be down stage right talking up stage to someone up stage left and all I’d see was the back of the person down stage and the tree they were apparently talking through to the person on the other side whom I couldn’t see. I get the metaphorical usage of the tree, but it could have been better located so that chunks of the drama wouldn’t be obstructed.
Still, this is a welcome return of Shakespeare to Hartford Stage, and I look forward to the day we get it again.