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The Winter's Tale

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Ethan Cadoff and Annalisa Loeffler.
Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
There is not a gimmick to be found in the WorkShop Theater Company's smart, engaging, and emotionally rewarding production of Shakespeare's late romance and so-called "problem play," The Winter's Tale. Instead, director Ryan Lee and the outstanding company have taken to heart the bard's own admonition, used in a different context in Hamlet, that "the play's the thing."

It just goes to show you what can happen when all involved trust the playwright. They imbue their collective work with all eyes on the singular goal of painting pictures through the magic of language rather than filling the stage with visual ruffles and flourishes of the sort we've been seeing of late: Romeo swooping in on a motorcycle; Puck being lofted into the air on a gigantic bedsheet; an on-stage rainstorm to drench King Lear and impress the audience.

Even Shakespeare's own famous stage direction—"Exit, pursued by a bear"—is blessedly left to the audience's imagination through the harrowing description of the attack on Antigonus offered up by the character of the Clown, who describes both the dying victim and the attacker as "roaring louder than the sea or weather." We don't have to see it in order to see it.

As is typical in modern productions, Shakespeare's five acts are split into two (Acts I-III, followed by Acts IV-V). This works especially well for The Winter's Tale, in which both the locale and the tone of the play shift during the break.

The first half takes place in Sicilia, the kingdom of Leontes (Ethan Cadoff), where all appears to be well. Leontes is surrounded by loyal followers, his loving wife Hermione (Laurie Schroeder), his adoring young son and heir Mamillius (Clark Loeffler), and his closest friend Polixenes (Jeff Paul), king of Bohemia. Polixenes is near the end of a long visit with his friend, who urges him to linger a little longer. It appears, however, that Polixenes is adamant about returning home, until Hermione convinces him to stay.

For whatever reason—or for no reason at all—Leontes is seized, like Othello, with a fit of jealousy, and even with no Iago to egg him on he becomes absolutely convinced that Hermione and Polixenes are lovers, that the child she is carrying is that of his erstwhile friend, and that possibly Mamillius is not his son.

Before you know it, he has ordered his trusted courtier Camillo (Michael Selkirk) to poison Polixenes, has his newborn daughter abandoned in the desert, and has Hermione imprisoned, with the intention of having her tried for treason and put to death. He is unrelenting in ignoring his closest advisors, the strong pleas from the noble and courageous Paulina (Annalisa Loeffler), and even the declaration from the gods themselves via Apollo's oracle, which could not be clearer: "Hermione is chaste;/ Polixenes blameless;/Leontes a jealous tyrant;/his innocent babe truly begotten."

Really! Defying the gods—not a good idea!

And so we come to the end of the first half of the play, styled after Greek tragedy in which a man's self-inflicted blindness and his hubris lead to his complete and utter downfall.

When we return after intermission, sixteen years have passed. The scene has shifted to Bohemia, and the tone of the play has become broadly comic and pastoral, with the focus on an old shepherd (James Michael Armstrong), his son (Jacob Callie Moore), the foundling girl the shepherd has raised as his own (Tess Frazer), Polixenes' son (Jon-Michael Miller), and a ne'er-do-well grifter and cutpurse (Robert Meksin). Suffice it to say, a long and winding path takes everyone back to Sicilia, where we find a deeply penitent Leontes, redemption, forgiveness, and love, and where (almost) all is restored.

Everything about this production is a pleasure, from the intimacy of the performance space, to the clarity of the language, to the strong and committed performances by the entire cast. Ethan Cadoff as Leontes, Laurie Schroeder as Hermione, Jeff Paul as Polixenes, and Annalisa Loeffler as Paulina are pitch perfect in their dramatic roles, and James Michael Armstrong, Jacob Callie Moore, and Robert Meksin are splendid as the comic characters.

This production of The Winter's Tale is truly a standout in this season of Shakespeare and one of the reasons I love Off Off Broadway!

The Winter's Tale
Through March 15
Workshop Mainstage Theater, 312 West 36th Street, 4th floor
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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