Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale" is a lot like a fairy-tale. Evil forces appear out of nowhere, the innocent are punished, and danger lurks in the woods, but in the end, love conquers all and everyone lives happily ever after.
Seeing Theatre Hopkins' production in the verdant setting of the terraced upper gardens at Evergreen House only adds to the play's magical sense of rebirth and reconciliation.
Granted, you have to look long and hard to find winter when the greenery is in full bloom and the temperature hovers around 90. So perhaps it's wise that director Suzanne Pratt makes no effort to pretend Baltimore's typical hot-hazy-and-humid summer clime is actually wintry Sicilia, where the first three acts take place.
Instead, she stages the opening as a lawn party at the palace of Sicilia's King Leontes. He and his boyhood friend, Polixenes, king of Bohemia, play darts at one end of the garden; at the other end, a game of boccie is under way; meanwhile, Leontes' young son capers around on a hobbyhorse.
The only winter to be found is in Leontes' heart, which suffers a sudden, inexplicable deep freeze not unlike temporary insanity when he decides his queen, Hermione, has commited adultery with Polixenes.
Mark E. Campion conveys Leontes' irrational jealousy without histrionics, but as if he were infected with a kind of influenza of suspicion. You can tell he was once a good and rational king, and he still thinks he's behaving rationally, though he's motivated by evidence only he can see. Indeed, James Dockery's Camillo, one of Leontes' loyal lords, looks at him as if he's gone mad and uses such words as "sickness" and "disease" to describe the king's state of mind.
Cherie Weinert imbues Leontes' wrongly accused queen with nobility and intelligence. Before her husband went off the deep end, she and he were clearly a model couple -- a perfect match in terms of wisdom, warmth, beauty and bearing. At her arraignment, though her heart is broken, she speaks without malice but with all the clarity her husband lacks.
Pratt inserts several nice touches when the action jumps ahead 16 years to sunny Bohemia. Chief among these is the entrance of J. R. Lyston, as the Chorus, who appears toting 16 white balloons, which he releases into the air to signify the passing years.
Everything is more free and easy in Bohemia, where much of the action takes place at a sheepshearing festival, and where the stunning off-white Regency costumes William Crowther designed for Sicilia give way to earth-toned, looser-fitting garments. In pastoral Bohemia, Polixenes' son has fallen in love with a shepherd's daughter and, as played by Ian Oldaker and Molly Moores, they seem like innocent woodland creatures.
There's a lot you have to take at face value in "The Winter's Tale" -- that Leontes' repentance comes on as quickly as his jealousy, or that the shepherd's daughter is actually a lost princess. So thinking of it as a fairy tale helps. It also helps explain the behavior of Queen Hermione's chief defender, scheming Paulina. fairy-tale terms, she's the fairy godmother, a sensibility emphasized by earnest but gentle Carol Mason.
Director Pratt further enhances the fairy-tale effect by cutting the script to the bone (it runs a little over two hours, with no intermission). Nor is the 16-year gap the only leap the production has made. In its own minor tour, Theatre Hopkins has performed this show in three different locations, beginning last weekend at Homewood House, then in Shriver Hall, both on the Johns Hopkins campus, and now at Evergreen. Though Homewood undoubtedly offered its own pleasures, Evergreen is a pure delight, albeit one better suited to the sunny warmth of the play's romantic conclusion than the chilly winter of its dark beginning.
'The Winter's Tale'
Where: Theatre Hopkins at Evergreen House gardens, 4545 N. Charles St.
When: 6: 15 p.m. Saturday and Sunday Tickets: $12, adults; $5, children
Pub Date: 6/24/97