BWW Review: A WINTER'S TALE at The Wheel Theatre Company
Grand sets and spectacle draw crowds, but the basis of all great theater is human connection and that can be born from sparsity. Don't get me wrong, I'm a Phantom of the Opera devotee. However, the splashier and more grandiose the production, the higher the ticket prices seem to climb. The Wheel Theatre Company's highly affordable presentation of William Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale is a perfect reminder that authentic theatrical experiences occur wherever passionate players gather.
With a cast of just nine performers, a handful of props, and virtually no set, Director Jack Read capably transforms a black box theater in an Adam's Morgan attic into Sicilia and Bohemia. Read's suggestive staging makes excellent use of the space. Physical dividers and backdrops aren't necessary here. The actors are confident and precise in interacting with their surroundings.
The charming DC Arts Center is not generous in size, but it is in intimacy. The small stage somehow seems to stretch into a palatial court when the psychological drama of the first act begins. The confinement does pose a high risk of distracting from the foreground action or breaking the razor-thin fourth wall, but the actors rarely succumb.
A Winter's Tale is one of the most perplexing of Shakespeare's plays. It pops with humor amidst one of the most disturbing premises in the Bard's repertoire. It's an interesting place to experiment as the text already offers so many puzzles to solve. In a playing ground for taking risks, Read makes a bold choice in casting Lee Havlicek as King Leontes.
The reasoning behind the casting is likely simple: Havlicek was the best actor for the job. However, this particular gender swap is fascinating. King Leontes sparks a seemingly unfounded and dangerous suspicion that his pregnant wife, Hermione, bears another man's child. The scenario explores the deadly peril in the paranoia of a monarch. However, with Havlicek in the role, the situation becomes more fraught and you may find original assumptions of the character being second-guessed. In addition to the added dynamic of the couple's conflict, Havlicek conveys a tortured depth I have never seen any man in the role descend to.
Elizabeth Ung is charming and resilient as Hermione. She acts every bit a queen, even in the face of madness. Just as Ung concludes a steady and sympathetic performance that might otherwise earn her a rest in the second half, she jumps into the comedic role of the Shepherd. The variance in the characters is stark and she's convincing in each. The dichotomy may earn her the title of the hardest-working member of the production.
Maria Simpkins' as Paulina is easily the scene-stealer of the show. Her passionate clash with Leontes in hopes to save the newborn Perdita is a jolt to the heart. I warn you - it is difficult to hide your sniffles in a theater just four rows deep.
As we journey away from Sicilia, the more humorous side of the play is revealed. Aron Spellane spins through a flurry of characters from a dark interpretive dance as Antigonus to the bumbling and loveable Shepherd's son. Spellane's physicality is enchanting and he seems to be game for anything.
Mackenzie Larsen makes a total transformation from the precocious and playful Mamilius to the poised Princess Perdita. The scenes in Bohemia tumble into a bit of a whirlwind, but Perdita grounds us as the emotional tie to the first act.
Moira Todd delights from the show's opening as our minstrel for the evening. Both her music and acting have the ability to captivate and she is a riot as the scheming Autolycus.
Read's goals are lofty declaring in the playbill you'll discover "boundless minutiae" and "indefatigable collective imagination" in his production of A Winter's Tale. I'm not sure I could accurately define "indefatigable" on a vocabulary test, but in essence, he's right. In stripping down one of Shakespeare's most bewildering plays and pulling a chair right up to the stage, you gain a new perspective of both microscopic detail and broad delights.
A Winter's Tale is the 7th production in DC by The Wheel Theatre Company, and sadly it's last. This is your final chance to experience their magical recipe for the arts. At the close of the show, they are relocating to Nashville.
The playbill declares, "We believe that no two performances are alike; with every audience, there are new experiences, new sights and sounds, new thoughts and feelings." The Wheel Theatre company certainly offers DC something unique and will be sorely missed. Here's hoping their mark will continue to inspire the area.
Running Time: 100 Minutes with no intermission
The Winter's Tale by The Wheel Theatre Company continues at the DC Arts Center through October 19. Purchase your tickets here.