Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale is really two plays in one.
The first play is a tragedy that almost calls to mind the tastelessly ribald displays that pop up on tabloid TV shows about paternity cases -- except this time, the outcome is fatal.
The second play is a romantic comedy of the fairy tale variety. Everything ends happily ever after. Even Shakespeare had some difficulty connecting the two halves; he separated them by a 16-year gap.
Director Irene Lewis' production at Center Stage uses the design motif of a rose to tie the two halves together. A painting of a rose is part of the scenery in the first half; in a scene that includes a vicious death, rose petals rain down like drops of blood; and after intermission a princess wears a dress whose layered pink chiffon skirt and tight green bodice resemble a rose bud.
The rose serves as an adequate link, but the second half of Lewis' production comes across more effectively, and not just because of the happy ending. This latter section has a magical quality, and Lewis fills it with all sorts of pleasures. It's also far more human and accessible than the first part of the evening.
Much of the early difficulty lies in the portrayal of the jealous husband who sets the plot in motion. King Leontes of Sicilia is a tricky role, chiefly because his jealousy springs full-blown out of nowhere. One minute he's pressuring his beloved queen to urge his best friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia, to prolong his visit. The next minute he's convinced that the pregnant queen and Polixenes have had an affair, and that Polixenes is the father of her unborn child.
Jon DeVries' approaches this abrupt change of heart with a lot of large gestures, underscored by a back wall portentously and too overtly illuminated in bright red. Like this lighting, DeVries' depiction feels forced. The actor doesn't just walk, he sweeps across the stage. There's a lurking, sneaky quality underlying his actions, but instead of being small and furtive, they're expansive and broad.
The best clue DeVries offers for Leontes' sudden suspicions comes in a moment when the king presses his forehead against a panel at the back of the set. In this brief instance, DeVries suggests that some sort of physical or psychological affliction may be the cause of Leontes' unwarranted, tyrannical behavior.
Then again, if you look at the entire play as a fable or fairy tale, then perhaps Leontes is its goblin or monster. "A sad tale's best for winter. I have one/Of sprites and goblins," Leontes' young son says to the queen. Seen this way, Leontes is the incarnation of evil and danger, and everyone else is the incarnation of goodness and delight.
Indeed, Olivia Birkelund portrays Leontes' maligned queen, Hermione, as the noble epitome of goodness. She's as restrained and rational as her husband is unreasonable and out of control.
Her loyal friend Paulina is the play's bravest character. Unlike her male counterparts, Paulina is unafraid to stand up to Leontes, and Caitlin O'Connell plays her as a woman of unwavering strength and courage.
The second half of the play, which takes place in pastoral Bohemia, is filled with clowns of one type or another, all charmingly portrayed: Laurence O'Dwyer's kindly Old Shepherd; Jefferson Mays' good-natured, bumbling Clown (the Shepherd's son); and even Tom Mardirosian's Autolycus, a rogue who's not half as dangerous as he'd like to think.
Lewis and the rest of her creative team -- Christine Jones (sets), Candice Donnelly (costumes), Pat Collins (lighting), David Budries (sound), and Willie Rosario (choreography), as well as onstage composer and musician Karen Hansen -- have some genuine fun in Bohemia.
The sheep at a sheep-shearing festival are life-sized, two-dimensional cut-outs mounted on stands. Attending this festival in disguise, Mark Elliot Wilson's handsome Polixenes and Conan McCarty's stalwart Camillo deck themselves out like a pair of goofy hunters in camouflage pants, blaze orange jackets and caps, and plastic Halloween masks.
How complete is the eventual happy ending? Under Lewis' guidance, even a man-eating bear is transformed into a flower-bearing gentle giant. Patience, time and contrition turn tragedy into comedy in The Winter's Tale. And despite a few thorns, Center Stage's interpretation comes out smelling like a rose.
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. some Saturdays; through March 31