The opening image in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of "The Winter's Tale" is that of a little boy playing with a snow-filled crystal ball.
It's an effective introduction for several reasons, not the least being that the entire production, currently at the Kennedy Center, has the crystal-like gloss associated with the slick craftsmanship of this renowned Shakespeare troupe.
It's also effective because, as staged by RSC artistic director Adrian Noble and designed by Anthony Ward, much of the action takes place inside a snowy white cube created by four walls of scrim that are lowered onto the middle of the stage.
Finally, in terms of Noble's overall approach to this difficult late Shakespearean romance, the opening image leads us into the play by presenting it from a child's point of view -- a notion reinforced by the recurring use of balloons as props. This is a delightfully appropriate choice for a text that is part fairy tale.
The fairy-tale elements in "The Winter's Tale," however, are deeply intermingled with tragedy, as is presaged by the line, "A sad tale's best for winter," spoken by the little boy, King Leontes' son Mamillius, in response to his mother's request for a story.
And, indeed, moments after Mamillius says this, he is torn away from his mother, Hermione, by Leontes, who is convinced that she has committed adultery with his best friend, King Polixenes, and that the child she is about to bear is Polixenes'.
The fierceness with which John Nettles portrays Leontes' jealousy is as dangerous as it is irrational. He manhandles Suzanne Burden's unswervingly loyal Hermione. And when he learns that one of his lords, Camillo, has fled with Polixenes instead of murdering him, Mr. Nettles' enraged Leontes grabs Hermione by her pregnant belly and does his best to shake her into miscarrying.
That's the proud and mean-spirited Mr. Nettles of the first half. In the second half, which takes place 16 years later, not only does the tone of the play change, but when Leontes reappears in the last act, Mr. Nettles plays him as a man so chastened, his spirit is all but broken.
In terms of the overall production, the shift in tone is best conveyed by the appearance of the roguish pickpocket, Autolycus, who makes his entrance suspended from a huge bunch of balloons and who is played by Mark Hadfield with slimy, music hall verve.
Mr. Hadfield's performance -- at once comic and shady -- exemplifies the play's complex blend of moods and helps escort the audience as well as the characters to the scene of reconciliation and renewal at the end.
However, Mr. Noble's handling of that affirmative but challenging conclusion, in which a statue comes to life, is far more workmanlike and less moving than his approach to the earlier scenes. (One of his most inspired touches comes just before intermission when he interpolates Hermione hovering in the form of an angel over her newborn daughter Perdita, whom Leontes has ordered exposed to the elements.)
In contrast, there's an unexpected coolness at the end of the RSC's otherwise masterly "Winter's Tale." It isn't that the performances aren't exacting -- some almost glow, such as those of Paul Jesson as noble Camillo, Phyllida Hancock as the engaging teen-aged Perdita, and particularly Gemma Jones as Hermione's outspoken defender, Paulina. But like fine crystal in which every edge and bevel is expertly cut, the production's final impression is one of beauty that lacks warmth.
What: "The Winter's Tale"
Where: Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, matinees 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through May 22
Call: (800) 444-1324