Rarely produced, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is a schizophrenic entity – half tortured tragedy, half a buoyant even fanciful comedy. This dichotomy is accentuated in the Old Globe’s production of The Winter’s Tale, the initial directorial foray at the Balboa Park theater for Globe Artistic Director Barry Edelstein. In this, the first indoor Shakespeare at the Globe in more than a decade, the Act 1 shadows and Act 2 brightness are starkly different in look and tenor. Somehow, the story of jealousy run obsessively amok, abandonment, remorse, retribution and reunion (yes, there’s that much going on in The Winter’s Tale) coalesces in time for a magical even supernatural finale that restores order and good tidings. The contrast between darkness and light at its simplest is implied by the presence of two pianos on stage: a stately grand played with dramatic tension during the first act, and a honkytonk upright conducive to youthful horseplay and romancing tin he second.
This staging of The Winter’s Tale features original music (by Michael Torke) employed to keen atmospheric effect as well as technical wonderwork such as flowers sprouting from the stage floor and star lights sweeping down from the rafters, both of which elicited “oohs” and “aahs” from the opening-night audience. The start of Act 2, with cast members holding beating metronomes to suggest the passage of 16 years in the story, and a spookily feral moment in the forest (“bear” included) also speak to Edelstein’s inspired, contemporary vision of the play. (Misfires: the reel-to-reel tape player standing in for the message of the Oracle, and a broad second-act sing-along.)
Billy Campbell, back at the Globe after 10 years, looms large as the ill-fated (but ultimately redeemed) Leontes of Sicilia. Campbell makes the king’s pained regrets as stirring as his deluded jealousy. Nearly as fierce is Angel Desai, dangerously sexy in last year’s Double Indemnity, as the forthright noblewoman Paulina.
The choice of modern-day dress for this Winter’s Tale speaks to the reality that such swirling passions as these are timeless. Still, this is a lengthy, two-headed play of frequent convolution that even in magical hands seems a Shakespeare B-side.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.