A ravishing production of The Winter’s Tale capped off a busy summer opening weekend in Ashland Sunday night at the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre, where — for the first time in days — the weather was practically balmy even when the show wrapped up at 11 p.m.
Directed by Desdemona Chiang, with scenic design by Richard L. Hay, the show is utterly striking in its visual separation of Sicilia, the kingdom where the story begins, and Bohemia, where its resolution begins to be played out. In this show, Sicilia is depicted as a formal and austere Chinese Han dynasty court, with the actors all Asian-Americans, while Bohemia is an ahistorical American redneck-hippie setting with bluegrass music and where anything goes.
This sounds artificial, possibly ridiculous, on paper. On stage it works exceedingly well. As the lights come up on what appears to be an empty Elizabethan stage, a gray curtain is closed, and when it’s pulled back again we find the first spare elements of the court of King Leontes (Eric Steinberg), in which he and his wife, Hermione (Amy Kim Waschke) are entertaining Polixenes (James Ryen), the king of Bohemia.
And, right off, Hermione’s nearly flirtatious friendliness with Polixenes is already driving a wedge into Leontes’ heart, setting up the tragedy of the play: Her imprisonment and death on account of the king’s unjustified jealousy.
The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s problem plays: A plot so weird it’s impossible to defend, transitioning in a heartbeat from a dark, psychological drama of love and jealousy into a comic and upbeat ending. And yet, it’s one of my favorites, if only because of its weirdness.
This production shines and almost makes sense out of the story; it doesn’t hurt at all that the production is so gorgeous to look at, whether we are in Han Sicily or redneck Bohemia.
Miriam Laube, who played Hermione when the festival last did the show ten years ago, directed then by Libby Appel, does a strong turn here as Paulina, Hermione’s firecely loyal maid.
Two classically odd scenes in The Winter’s Tale absolutely shine in this production. First there’s that famous stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” This bear, let me tell you, is about as big as they come.
And the final scene, in which a statue of Hermione comes back to life, setting up the happy ending, is like stepping into a rich fairy tale. Go see this one and prepare to be awed.