Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
The Winter's Tale / The Alchemist
Also see Rebecca's review of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill
Shakespeare and Jonson wrote The Winter's Tale and The Alchemist, respectively, while locked down during the bubonic plague. The plays were their first productions when theaters reopened after the plague ended in 1610. Both works feature characters who delude themselves into believing things that are manifestly false, at their own peril. Commoners, kings, fools, and noblemen all experience the dangers of misinformation and the harm that comes from denying the true nature of things. It is hard to imagine context and theme more immediately pertinent.
But if all that feels too cerebral, rest assured that The Alchemist is a crowd pleaser as bawdy and blithe as any farce. Director Paul Hebron keeps the action crisp and lets the phenomenal ensemble be playful and raunchy and wild. The Winter's Tale is all of that plus a soap opera's worth of heartbreak and drama. The jaunty humor is titillating and its darkest moments are devastating. Director Alexander Burns successfully embraces the full spectrum of Shakespeare's romance.
The Transformation Repertory features eleven actors performing dozens of roles across the two productions. It is a formidable task and the entire ensemble rises to the occasion with gusto. Much of the pain and power in The Winter's Tale comes from Hillary Parker's spellbinding performance. Parker plays Queen Hermione, wife of jealous and rash King Leontes (Michael Zlabinger), who turns on her and his best friend King Polixenes (Amari Ingram) because he fears they are lovers. Parker fills the stage with all the emotion of a mother separated from her children and forced to stand trial by her husband. Zlabinger delivers both boundless hubris and deep emotional distress. Travoye Joyner stands out as young prince Florizel. Joseph Langham and Lee Thomas Cortopassi are hysterical as father and son sheep herders who end up in loco parentis for the royal princess. Langham's dry wit is delicious and Cortopassi's antic physical comedy is lots of fun, but Jered McLenigan's turn as Autolycus steals the show. With a modern acoustic and an outrageously cheeky attitude, the waggish bard turned thief turned peddler charms the other players and audience alike.
McLenigan is just as audacious, if somewhat less peacockish, in The Alchemist. McLenigan, John Zak, and Hanna Gaffney are Subtle, Face, and Dol Common, a trio of grifters taking advantage of an empty house left behind by Face's absent master. Zak is irascible and peevish and plays off McLenigan's brash manor with wicked skill. McLenigan also has real chemistry with Gaffney's boisterous and saucy Dol Common. Amari Ingram and Joseph Langham are excellent as Able Drugger and Sir Epicure Mammon, two of the trio's unsuspecting victims. A bit too much of Drugger's demure attitude makes it into Ingram's rendition of King Polixenes on the other side of the repertory.
Liz Filios, Jered McLenigan, and Joseph Langham create excellent original music for The Winter's Tale. Even the incidental music choices are impeccable. Both productions benefit from Ellen Moore's dynamic lighting designs and Alexander Burns's clean, stately set design. Clever, well-executed costuming adds clarity and drama to both productions. Lisa Jane Casanave has created an array of clever, modern looks for The Winter's Tale. The kings in tuxedos are especially apt. The Alchemist's lush and intricate period costumes are designed by Summer Lee Jack.
Having great repertory theater back at the Quintessence feels like a lovely small step forward on our unsteady, zig-zag path toward a new normal. It's not as good as having a magic flea to make you lucky at cards, but I'll take it.
The Transformation Repertory: The Winter's Tale and The Alchemist runs through April 17, 2022, at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia PA. For tickets and information, please call 215-987-4450 or visit quintessencetheatre.org.
The Winter's Tale