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Review | ‘The Winter’s Tale’ poignantly ushers in a new era for Folger Theatre

For an exemplary portrait of inchoate jealousy, consider the work of Hadi Tabbal in director Tamilla Woodard’s outstanding production of “The Winter’s Tale” at Folger Theatre. Getting right the delusional paranoia of Sicilian King Leontes, who lodges unfounded accusations of infidelity against his wife, Hermione (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), and best friend, Polixenes (Drew Kopas), is one of the most challenging tasks this tragicomic Shakespearean romance poses.

That’s because the crazy switch is turned on so abruptly in Leontes’s imagination, in a play about paralyzing grief and redemptive remorse. The mechanics of Shakespeare’s plot — unfolding first in rigid, tyrannized Sicilia and then in pastoral, sunnier Bohemia — hinge on our rooting for the characters Leontes so cruelly censures. But also on some way of understanding the mystery the playwright has left us about the power of envy and possessiveness to trigger lethal impulses.

In this instance, Tabbal allows us rapidly to feel the obsessive quality of Leontes’s dominion over Hermione, played by the beguiling Crowe-Legacy with a compassionate warmth that makes you wonder what she could have seen in a husband of such petty distractibility. And in the fleeting pleasantries Hermione and Kopas’s dashing Polixenes exchange during a royal cocktail party, Woodard lays the groundwork for the catastrophic misapprehension by Leontes, fueled by his sexual insecurity. (There’s also, always, a hint of homoeroticism in his longtime friendship with Polixenes, the Bohemian leader.)

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This perceptively conceived “Winter’s Tale” — featuring exceptional supporting performances by Kate Eastwood Norris, Cody Nickell, Reza Salazar and Stephen Patrick Martin — serves as a prologue to the formal reopening next year of Folger Shakespeare Library, which closed in 2020 for an $80.5 million renovation. The jewel box playhouse, long home to the library’s theater company, has not been altered, but a new below-ground entrance has been constructed that adds contemporary architectural elegance. The redesign will also include new exhibition halls, cafes and gardens.

In the meantime, Folger reacquaints us with why Washington remains a premier destination for Shakespeare; few American cities can boast two theaters as robustly committed to the classics as Folger and Shakespeare Theatre Company. Folger’s artistic director, Karen Ann Daniels, came up with an inspired choice to stage the first show in the company’s reinhabited space: Woodard, chair of the acting program at the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale University, was before her appointment in 2021 co-artistic director of New York’s Working Theater, a company founded in 1985 to create plays for and about blue-collar workers.

Woodard’s modern-dress “Winter’s Tale” works especially well because of the seamless way she integrates the play’s humanly emotional and fantastical elements. The story, spanning 17 years after the death of Hermione, follows the flight of Leontes’s aide Camillo (Nickell) from Sicilia to Bohemia, to which baby Perdita (played as a teenager by Kayleandra White), child of Leontes and Hermione, has also been spirited.

It’s a complex fairy tale, with potentially tragic outcomes at every turn — and some of the most outrageous conceits in the canon, including the best stage direction ever, for Antigonus (played by Martin), as he abandons the cast-out Perdita in the wild: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” And of course, there’s the endlessly puzzled-over denouement that has Paulina (Norris, in wonderfully assertive form) bring a statue of Hermione, supposedly dead for 17 years, to life.

Audiences, Shakespeare seems to be saying, will fall for anything. That notion is brought home in the character of Salazar’s Autolycus, a resourcefully ingratiating pickpocket (wearing a great patchwork cloak by costume designer Sarah Cubbage) who preys upon the easily duped denizens of Bohemia again and again. They include the kind but foolish Shepherd (Martin again) and the Shepherd’s Son, portrayed with infinite oafishness by Nicholas Gerwitz.

Woodard and set designer Raul Abrego Jr. choose a streamlined visual aesthetic. Bohemia, the more colorful of “The Winter’s Tale’s” worlds, is conjured by a carpet of artificial grass and the portrait of a sheep on an epic-sized curtain. It couldn’t be more different from Leontes’s Sicilia. And yet, on this occasion, we’re reminded of the unfortunate ramifications when the autocratic whims of a leader are exercised in any land. Polixenes, on his home turf, proves as capable of despotic overreaction as Leontes.

In the reunion of his family under magical circumstances, Tabbal’s repentant Leontes brings “The Winter’s Tale” to its tearful, conciliatory conclusion. That spirit of renewal seems especially fitting for a company welcoming theatergoers back to Capitol Hill.

The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Tamilla Woodard. Set, Raul Abrego Jr.; costumes, Sarah Cubbage; choreography, Joya Powell; sound and music, Matthew M. Nielson. With Jonathan Del Palmer, Clarence Michael Payne, Richard Bradford, Sabrina Lynne Sawyer. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through Dec. 17 at Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE.

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