Don Aucoin, The Boston Globe December 15, 2015
THE WINTER’S TALE by William Shakespeare
Actors’ Shakespeare Project
BROOKLINE — No one knew better than Shakespeare how unsettling the combination of absolute power and utter irrationality can be.
Take Leontes, king of Sicilia, in “The Winter’s Tale,’’ now at Actors’ Shakespeare Project. When it comes to unwarranted jealousy, Othello’s got nothing on Leontes — and there is no Iago to blame, either. Leontes alone convinces himself, on no evidence, that he’s been cuckolded, and grim consequences flow from the king’s irrational belief.
But what makes “The Winter’s Tale’’ unusual are the play’s mood swings, from the broodingly tragic aspect of its first half to the larky comedy and swooning romance that take over in its second half. Shakespeare also threw in a bit of myth and a startling plot twist, encapsulated by possibly the most famous stage directions in the history of theater: “Exit, pursued by a bear.’’ Then the Bard capped it all off with a burst of magic in the mysterious form of a statue that comes to life — unless it’s not magic and not a statue at all, but rather a woman who has been in hiding for many years.
These variable elements are skillfully balanced by director Melia Bensussen, who also helmed last year’s splendid Actors’ Shakespeare Project production of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.’’ Although the handsome costumes designed by Mary Lauve for this “Winter’s Tale’’ convey an Edwardian flavor, Bensussen’s staging creates the timeless aura of a folk tale on Cristina Todesco’s spare set.
The topnotch cast includes the company’s artistic director, Allyn Burrows, who makes for a compellingly unhinged Leontes. It is Burrows’s steadily darkening countenance in the opening scene that signals the storms to come, just as the actor’s restless pacing will later mirror the fevered whirling of the monarch’s mind. Leontes is standing apart, watching a warm and friendly conversation between his very pregnant queen, Hermione (an elegant Mara Sidmore), and his longtime friend, Polixenes, the king of Bohemia (Nigel Gore, exemplary as usual).
Suddenly, Leontes leaps to the false conclusions that the two are lovers and that it was Polixenes, not he, who impregnated Hermione. The actions he subsequently takes in a blind rage cost Leontes his wife, his friend, and his son, albeit in different ways. As for the baby girl to whom Hermione gives birth, the king orders a lord named Antigonus (Steven Barkhimer) to take the baby to a remote place and abandon her.
The spot Antigonus chooses for this horrifying task is none other than Bohemia. No sooner has Antigonus discharged his bleak duty than he is pursued and devoured by the aforementioned (unseen) bear, a development staged with considerable brio by Bensussen, aided by sound designer David Remedios and lighting designer John Malinowski. Soon, the baby is discovered by an old shepherd (Burrows again, in a deft casting touch) and his son (well played by the versatile Jesse Hinson, who also portrays Camillo, a lord of Sicilia).
In the play’s second half, it is 16 years later, and the abandoned baby, Perdita, has grown into a lovely young woman, portrayed here by recent Emerson College graduate Austyn Davis. Wholly unaware that she is a princess, Perdita falls in love with a prince named Florizel (Felix Teich), the son of Polixenes (remember him?). The stage is set for an eventual discovery of the young shepherdess’s true identity and a reunion with a contrite Leontes.
Through no fault of Davis or Teich, the young lovers are not all that engrossing. Much more fun are the two shepherds and a roguish pickpocket named Autolycus, played by Barkhimer, who delivers some choice bits of comedy as well as some impressive dexterity. Also in strong form is Marianna Bassham as Paulina, a forceful noblewoman (married to the unlucky Antigonus) who is not afraid to stand up to Leontes. For all of the humor in this “Winter’s Tale,’’ Paulina’s refusal to be silenced reminds us how high the stakes can be, and how lasting the consequences, when powerful figures behave in arbitrary ways.