Folger Theatre’s rendition of The Winter’s Tale is a beautiful blend of bone-chilling drama and sunny optimism

December 11, 2023

Leontes (Hadi Tabbal, left) tries to convince his most loyal lord Camillo (Cody Nickell) of his own wife's infidelities in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. The production is on stage at Folger Theatre, Nov. 5–Dec. 17, 2023. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

Whether you prefer the eccentric, innuendo-laden lightness of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies or the dreary, emotional gut-punches of his twisted tragedies, The Winter’s Tale is a phenomenal play which is sure to gratify fans across the taste spectrum. By masterfully weaving together plot elements recycled from his earlier successes, Shakespeare creates a richly textured tapestry of his talents with The Winter’s Tale, a tapestry which director Tamilla Woodard stunningly brings to life in this Folger Theatre Production.

The Winter’s Tale is a criminally underappreciated entry in The Bard’s oeuvre that strikes a delectable balance between poignant chilliness and radiant charm. Though one of the show’s most famous quotations is “a sad tale’s best for winter,” Folger Theatre’s Production is so much more than its somber scenes. While the play’s first half is characterized by turbulence and melancholia, the hysterical hijinks of the second half transform the production into something virtually unrecognizable post-intermission. This duality positions The Winter’s Tale to be beloved by fans of Shakespearean tragedies and comedies alike—over the course of its two and a half hour run time, there truly is something for everyone to enjoy. 

Running from Nov. 5 to Dec. 17, The Winter’s Tale is a story of two kingdoms, Sicilia and Bohemia, and their reigning kings, Leontes (Hadi Tabbal) and Polixenes (Drew Kopas) respectively. In the beginning of Act I, Polixenes journeys to Sicilia to visit Leontes and his queen Hermione (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) as they celebrate the eighth birthday of their son Mamillus (Clarance Payne). The celebration begins on a jovial note, but festering jealousies ensure this glimmer of glee is rapidly extinguished, not to return until just before intermission. Leontes and Polixenes grew up like brothers, but when Leontes suspects an affair brewing between Polixenes and Hermione, their once-wholesome relationship quickly sours from amity to animosity. 

Hermione (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) charms close friend Polixenes (Drew Kopas) into extending his stay in Sicilia in Folger Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s late romance The Winter’s Tale. On stage Nov. 5–Dec. 17, 2023 at Folger Theatre. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

Hermione (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) charms close friend Polixenes (Drew Kopas) into extending his stay in Sicilia in Folger Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s late romance The Winter’s Tale. On stage November 5–December 17, 2023 at Folger Theatre. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

In trying to convince Polixenes to extend his stay in Sicilia for her husband’s sake, Hermione and the king of Bohemia engage in a quippy negotiation, which Leontes, listening unnoticed from afar, perceives to be “too hot.” After overhearing this exchange, Leontes rapidly deteriorates into full-fledged madness, operating under the delusion that he has witnessed something far too playful to be strictly platonic. Whenever Leontes is overtaken by a self-destructive spiral, the mise-en-scène effectively crafts a frigid, frightening mood; lighting designer Max Doolittle shifts the lights from a soft amber glow to a frosty blue and sound designer Matthew M. Nielsen incorporates a series of ominous chime tones to produce an anxious ambience. 

These production choices provide the perfect scaffolding for Hadi Tabbal’s stupendous performance as Leontes, an irrational, impassioned man firmly in the green-eyed monster’s clutches. In addition to the startling intensity of his line delivery, complete with a series of squeaking, desperation-laced voice cracks, Tabbal’s shaking hands and tension-wrought hunched posture serve as physical manifestations of his internal turmoil in grappling with the perceived infidelity of his wife and betrayal of his dearest friend. When Leontes’s rage morphs into miserable remorse towards the tail end of Act III, Tabbal’s impeccable acting chops ensure a realistic, rather than awkwardly abrupt, tonal pivot.

In terms of remarkable performances, Tabbal’s is in excellent company. Antoinette Crowe-Legacy is nothing short of astonishing as Sicilia’s noble Queen Hermione, balancing the character’s regal composure, erudite teasing, and debilitating devastation seamlessly. Crowe-Legacy’s despondent, grief-ridden performance during the trial scene that serves as the centerpiece of Act III is a particular stand-out; she embodies Hermione’s physical and emotional exhaustion with a crushing realism that is sure to rattle any viewer to their core. Likewise, Kate Eastwood Norris’s portrayal of Paulina, The Winter’s Tale’s sage voice of reason, flawlessly marries her commanding and compassionate nature. In the aftermath of the trial’s crucial verdict, waves of uncontrollable agony pierce her austere scolding of Leontes to heart-wrenching effect. 

As set designer Raul Abrego Jr. brilliantly foreshadows through playful set pieces like Mamillius’s teddy bear and bear pajamas throughout the show’s first half, Act III comes to a “grizzly” close. After intermission, The Winter’s Tale resumes with the character of Time revealing that sixteen years have passed in Sicilia and Bohemia. Though Time is traditionally portrayed by an older man in most productions of The Winter’s Tale, Woodard’s reimagining allows third-grader Clarance Payne—who portrayed Mamillius earlier in the show—to deliver the monologue instead. Appearing in a powdered wig and flowing black judge’s robes, Payne’s flawless recitation of Act IV’s opening monologue prompted a thunderous round of applause. While any of the actors in this versatile ensemble certainly could have delivered a worthwhile performance in this role, having the opportunity to watch a young performer like Payne shine so spectacularly is always a treasure. 

In a refreshing change of pace, Acts IV and V present the audience with a warm, golden thaw that contradicts the icy unraveling of a once tight-knit family. Taking place predominantly in Bohemia as opposed to Sicilia, The Winter’s Tale’s second half is jam-packed with all of the hallmarks of a Shakespearean comedy. Between Perdita (Kayleandra White) and Florizell’s (Jonathan Del Palmer) salacious, budding romance, Polixenes and Camillo’s (Cody Nickell) absurd disguises as they enter the countryside, and a myriad of wacky musical numbers, this secondary segment of the show is riotous and reinvigorating. 

Perdita (Kayleandra White) and Florizel (Jonathan Del Palmer) share a quiet, intimate moment in Shakespeare’s romance, The Winter’s Tale. On stage at Folger Theatre,November 5–December 17, 2023. Photo by Brittany Diliberto

Perdita (Kayleandra White) and Florizel (Jonathan Del Palmer) share a quiet, intimate moment in Shakespeare’s romance, The Winter’s Tale. On stage at Folger Theatre, Nov. 5–Dec. 17, 2023. Photo by Brittany Diliberto

Characters once anchored by the plot’s dangerous precarity before the time jump are wonderfully uninhibited sixteen years later, a shift which makes space for the cast to showcase their sharp comedic talents. For instance, while Camillo and Polixenes face grave stakes in Sicilia, they embark on a series of outlandish antics as they traverse throughout rural Bohemia. Nickell and Kopas gloriously lean into the more farcical elements of their characters. Camillo playing a stupendous, old-timey rendition of “Push It” by Salt-n-Pepa on the melodica is a virtually impossible scene to imagine in Acts I-III, but by Act IV—much to the audience’s sincere delight—nothing is off the table. 

Speaking of dynamic duos, the Shepherd (Stephen Patrick Martin) and the Shepherd’s Son (Nicholas Gerwitz) ingeniously tackle the oblivious fool archetype with charming sincerity and hilarity in equal measure. The scene in which they appear in hideous, gaudy garb in hopes of blending in amongst the royalty of the Sicilian court is absolutely side-splitting. 

The roguish peddler Autolycus (Reza Salazar) sings a happy tune in Folger Theatre’s The Winter’s Tale. On stage November 5–December 17, 2023. Photo by Brittany Diliberto

The roguish peddler Autolycus (Reza Salazar) sings a happy tune in Folger Theatre’s The Winter’s Tale. On stage Nov. 5–Dec. 17, 2023. Photo by Brittany Diliberto

Finally, Reza Salazar who plays the bicycling, pickpocketing, musical trickster Autolycus is the shining star of The Winter’s Tale’s second half. His introductory musical number at the top of Act IV which features an engaging call-and-response section, some splendid lute strumming, and a series of hysterically debaucherous dance moves is a show-stopping palette cleanser after the previous act’s doom and gloom. 

Complete with one of Shakespeare’s most beautiful, optimistic—yet not saccharine—endings executed to divine perfection, The Winter’s Tale at The Folger Theatre is sure to leave audiences feeling satisfied by its conclusion. From the thoughtful mise-en-scène to the dynamic, earnest performances, there is an undeniable warmth radiating from this play’s center. Considering Folger Shakespeare Library director Michael Witmore revealed in 2018 that The Winter’s Tale was his favorite Shakespearean play, it’s no secret why this production handles its underrated source material with such a vibrant, fervent love. Woodard’s wondrous reimagining of this charming, centuries-old romance unapologetically wears its heart on its sleeve, ensuring that regardless of whether or not “a sad tale” truly is best for winter, Folger Theatre’s production of The Winter’s Tale certainly is.

The Winter’s Tale is running at Folger Theatre until Dec. 17. Tickets can be purchased here.

Hailey Wharram
Hailey is a senior from Richmond, Virginia studying English, journalism, and film and media studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. When she isn’t writing for The Voice, she loves songwriting, reading, scrupulously updating her Letterboxd profile, and romanticizing her life one Spotify playlist at a time.

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