Problematical play, exhilarating production: 'The Winter's Tale' an unlikely triumph for Seattle Shakespeare

Let's get the bad news out of the way: "The Winter's Tale" is not Shakespeare's strongest effort. The good news is that Seattle Shakespeare Company's current production is simply wonderful, overcoming most of the limitations of the script.

Director Mark Harrison has synthesized key elements of puppet theater with a Zen aesthetics and added them to a period production that manages to be straightforward and totally accessible. It's a remarkable melding - exciting, unexpected, beautiful to see.

The story is one of consuming jealousy. King Polixenes wants to go home. For many months he has been visiting King Leontes and his pregnant Queen, Hermione. Leontes hates to see his good friend leave but can't seem to convince him to stay. He asks his beloved wife to encourage their friend to remain as their guest. She does it, and instead of being happy, Leontes immediately suspects that his wife and friend have been lovers. He plots to poison Polixenes, kill his wife and the daughter she produces and involve his trusted courtiers in the murders.

The whole court is horrified, but the tyrannical Leontes refuses to shake off his crazy jealousy. He dispatches his underlings to their dastardly tasks. Meanwhile, he sends two courtiers to consult an oracle of Apollo, convinced that they will bring back proof of the suspected misconduct. Instead the oracle reaffirms the purity of all accused. Leontes' own jealously has robbed him of those he loved most in the world. He is overcome with grief and vows repentance for the rest of his life.

What he doesn't know is that the daughter and wife survive and his friendship with Polixenes will be reestablished. Sixteen years later, the daughter winds up marrying Polixenes' son. The wife turns from cold stone to warm flesh and embraces Leontes passionately. Everyone lives happily ever after.

There are a number of weaknesses in the play. How does one explain why the loving Leontes is suddenly consumed with a jealous, homicidal rage? How can we accept that the victims of his rage bear him no ill will at all? Though the language has all the poetry one expects from Shakespeare, the structure of the play is flawed. He hasn't taken the time to integrate the beginning of the play with the ending. The first half of the play is a tragedy. The final scenes, done as a second act in this production, are comedic with clowns, foolish dupes, merry pranksters, festive dances and celebrations. This is one of Shakespeare's last works, written shortly before his death and not published until years after his demise. We can only assume that he was tiring of his task.

OK, a weak play, but more than made up for by the brilliance of the production. Jennifer Zeyl's set and Tim Wratten's lighting work marvelously. The set is a simple raised platform, edged in a band of blue and surrounded by leafless winter trees whose bark is red. Red, blue and white light bathe the stage at strategic intervals, serving to reinforce the story's tragic emotions and its bright denouement. The screens that serve as backdrop and props have a Zen-like cloudscape, and that Zen quality is reinforced when the grieving Leontes rakes the stage which takes on the appearance of a Zen sand garden simply by the addition of two or three rocks.

The costumes by Melanie Taylor Burgess ingeniously combine period overlays on contemporary clothes. Karl Frederik Lundeberg has created an original score that most effectively mirrors and reinforces the ongoing action.

The entire cast is good. Every one of them deserves mention, but sadly space doesn't allow it. I must note Paul Morgan Stetler's portrayal of Leontes, however. He plays the character as if his jealousy were a form of madness. I had not seen this in other productions, and was delighted by it. Stetler makes Leontes' split personality somewhat plausible.

The strongest raves go to director Mark Harrison for conceiving the extraordinary staging. You know you're in for something unexpected before the actual play begins when the entire cast whirls onto the stage to perform a dance/pantomime that serves as a teaser, if you know the plot.

Some of the actors carry bird puppets. The actors cause these cranes to soar and sail as they weave in and out of the dance patterns. (The director reminds us in his program notes that cranes mate for life.) Other actors carry brown masses that first look like islands but then come together to form the ferocious head of a bear. And if you've read the play, you know that the bear is a significant element within the plot.

As the play progresses, puppet ships ply undulating seas of metal wire. The bear comes back for grisly purpose. The character Time is represented by a life-size puppet manipulated by actors in dark covering. And finally, at the conclusion, even the bows are choreographed in creative fashion. This is truly a magical production. So what if Leontes' behavior is inexplicable? So what if part one and part two seem to come from different works? This production is creative. It's engrossing. It's just plain thrilling theater.

'The Winters Tale'

Center House Theatre in Seattle Center

Thursdays through Sundays through Nov. 19

Tickets: $18 -$32

733-8222 or

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