Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 24, 2023

REVIEW: Hartford Stage, "The Winter's Tale"

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through May 7, 2023
by C. L. Blacke

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
As one of Shakespeare’s final plays, "The Winter’s Tale" is often categorized as a romantic comedy with elements of tragedy; however, this story is best described as two tales. The first is a tragic story that follows one man’s path of self-destruction, including attempted murder, imprisonment, exile, grief and remorse. The second (and more entertaining) tale lifts the heavy veil of darkness some 16 years later to celebrate young love in a way only Shakespeare can imagine—with mistaken identity, characters in disguise, buffoonery, and physical comedy.

Melia Bensussen wrestles with these opposing forces in her first Shakespearean production at Hartford Stage since becoming the Artistic Director in 2019 and comes out a winner in the end.

Though "The Winter's Tale" is fraught with deception, heartbreak, and betrayal, the actors seem oddly detached from their characters. Nathan Darrow’s King Leontes doesn’t fully commit to his emotions as much as Shakespeare’s text would have us believe. Likewise, Carman Lacivita’s Camillo provides weak motivation for his defection. Even Omar Robinson’s Polixenes, who until now has been a bright spot, doesn’t seem exactly distraught at the thought of being murdered. Nevertheless, two noteworthy performances include Jamie Ann Romero’s unwavering portrayal of Hermoine and Lana Young’s forceful depiction of Paulina.

Much anticipated, this tragic story comes to a dramatic end when Bensussen’s vision of the most famous and confusing stage direction of all time, “Exit, pursued by a bear,” plays out. And it is masterful, using a combination of lighting and sound effects designed by Evan Anderson and Pornchanok Kanchanabanca, respectively.

The spring tale, filled with witty banter, clowning, singing, and live music, comes none too soon. This is where Bensussen’s production really shines.

Jeremy Webb excels in his second role of the play as the simple and often silly Shepherd who finds and raises Leontes’ abandoned daughter, but it is Pearl Rhein as the rogue Autolycus and John Maddaloni as the shepherd’s buffoonish son Clown who steal the show. From acting, to singing, to playing multiple instruments, Rhein's and Maddaloni’s repartee immediately lightens the tone of the dark first act and brings the audience to rolling laughter with their antics. One particular moment of hilarity ensues during a perfectly executed exchange of clothes in a robbery gone wrong. Other actors, now hitting their stride, play off—and with—newfound zeal. Even Camillo seems more comfortable, in an awkward sort of way, when Polixenes forces him to don a ridiculous disguise.

Though not one of the Bard’s most popular plays, Bensussen’s production of "The Winter’s Tale" reminds us that live theatre, once encompassed in Elizabethan times, can replicate such experiences again —a blend of comedy and tragedy, live music and singing, but above all, entertainment.