Antaeus presents “The Winter’s Tale” – reviewed

“A sad tale’s best for winter,” Shakespeare has one of his characters opine in his penultimate work, The Winter’s Tale, an odd duck of a play that’s mostly been overshadowed by his final one, The Tempest. Tale is often referred to by academics as “a problem play,” and one can easily see why – it’s as if two separate plays (a tragedy and a comedy) have been merged together not entirely successfully. That being said, it’s also quite moving and entertaining, and a fascinating look at Shakespeare experimenting with new theatrical structure. The current production by Antaeus Theatre Company is very enjoyable and impressive, with terrific performances across the board.

In an ancient, semi-fictional setting, the king of Sicily, Leontes (Adam J. Smith) and the king of Bohemia, Polixenes (Ned Mochel) are old friends. After a long visit in Sicily, Polixenes is ready to return home but is convinced to stay longer by Leontes’ wife, the queen Hermione (Kaci Hamilton). Leontes becomes convinced his friend and wife are cuckolding him and this leads him to act out of jealous rage. He attempts and fails to poison Polixenes, who escapes to Bohemia, and Hermione dies, leaving behind an infant daughter who is spirited away to grow up secretly in Bohemia. Decades later, that daughter, Perdita (Shannon Lee Clair), has been brought up by a kindly shepherd and is being romanced in secret by Polixenes’ son, Florizel (Peter Mendoza). But if his father finds out about the couple, the bad history between the two countries might cause fresh heartbreak.

Smith is excellent as the horribly misguided Leontes, giving a transfixing performance as a man eaten alive—as described in the play—by “diseased opinion,” raging and clutching at his chest as if his ailment isn’t just mental but also physical. Mochel is very good as the seemingly morally superior Polixenes, but it turns out the bohemian can get vindictive with the best of them. Hamilton is very sympathetic as the more-sinned-against Hermione, and Geoffrey Wade excels as the reliable friend Camillo.

 Production photos by Jenny Graham.

Clair and Mendoza are both charming as the young romantic couple, but have less time in the play to fully register. JD Cullum is quite amusing as the con man Autolycus, and Conlan Ledwith does great, funny character work as the Shepherd’s Son. But the thing I will remember most from this show is Ann Noble’s fierce, breathtaking performance as Hermione’s friend/champion Paulina. I’ve admired Noble’s work for many years, as both a superb actress and playwright, but her portrayal here is outstanding; one of those blessed confluences of actor and role that produces something amazing. There is a scene in which her character pulls out all the stops to convince Leontes of the wrongness of his actions, and when that doesn’t work she just (metaphorically) burns the place down with a righteous fury that is awesome to behold. Moments like this are why people go to theatre.

Elizabeth Swain’s direction brings clarity and swift pacing to what in lesser hands could be too daunting a project, and she gets fantastic work from her talented cast. She also solves the famed “Exit, pursued by a bear” stage direction problem rather nicely. Two things grabbed my attention from Shakespeare’s writing in Tale. The first is the use of the word “bedswerver” to describe an adulterer, which I think we should bring back into the vernacular. The second was my fascination in noticing that the Bard had two endings here, and instead of dragging things out, just had characters describe the first ending to the audience instead of staging it, which seems like a very modern solution.

“This is the time that the unjust man doth thrive,” Shakespeare wrote in The Winter’s Tale, a sentiment that seems awfully relevant to our current time. Several characters let their anger overtake them, causing huge suffering for all those around them. However, this is ultimately a story of forgiveness, of redemption, which brings welcome hope into the equation. The Antaeus production of Tale is an excellent rendition of a rarely performed play, and is well worth any theatergoers’ time.

A Winter’s Tale is presented by and at Antaeus Theatre Company and plays through March 11, 2024. Tickets are available here.

Terry Morgan



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