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THEATER REVIEW: “The Winter’s Tale” at Old Globe

A husband’s jealous rage – resulting in the destruction of his family – turns into a slapstick comedy and later a bit of magical realism in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” playing through March 16 at the Old Globe.

Artistic director Barry Edelstein makes his Old Globe directing debut with this late play, known as one of the Bard’s problem plays for its extreme tonal shifts.

Set in what Edelstein calls “an invented modern world,” the first thing we see is a backdrop that looks like an industrial office building. In front (presumably in Leontes’ palace) are two musical instruments – a tiny toy piano played by Leontes’ young son Mamillius (Jordi Bertran) and a modern piano, where Taylor Peckham plays Michael Torke’s angular, jagged but most appropriate music.

Leontes (Billy Campbell) engages in what may be the Bard’s most complete (certainly the fastest) example of self-destruction short of suicide. Here’s a man who has it all – he’s the king of Sicilia with a young son and a beautiful wife about to give him a second child, throwing a farewell party for best childhood buddy Polixenes (Paul Michael Valley), now king of Bavaria.

Life could hardly be better – until Leontes gets it into his head that he’s been cuckolded by his old friend and his wife is carrying Polixenes’ child.

He jails wife Hermione (Natacha Roi) and orders Polixenes poisoned. That plot fails and Polixenes returns to Bohemia accompanied by Leontes’ servant Camillo (Cornell Womack), who decides to desert Leontes and stay in Bohemia to serve Polixenes.

Soon Leontes will lose his family and complete his own isolation when he sends a servant to abandon newborn baby girl Perdita on a deserted island.

The tragedy of the first act undergoes a complete tonal switch in the next act, set in the boots-jeans-and-gingham countryside among down-home folk. Chief among them is Autolycus (Paul Kandel) – a rogue who seems to be the Shakespearean version of “Oklahoma’s” Ali Hakim – who sings unintelligible songs, sells trinket, steals from unsuspecting farm folk and generally causes good-natured havoc. A small upright piano replaces the stately baby grand of the previous act.

Perdita (Maya Kazan) has grown into a lovely young shepherdess who has attracted the eye of Polixenes’ son Florizel (A.Z. Kelsey). When Polixenes gets wind of this, he falls into the same baseless rage trap Leontes did and forbids the marriage, setting up yet another tonal shift to romance.

Florizel and Perdita decide to skip town and elope. Camillo sends them to Sicilia with letters for Leontes, where (thanks to a little magical realism) the plot is sorted out and Leontes achieves a sort of redemption.

Campbell does what he can with Leontes’ sudden and inexplicable apparent insanity, becoming in the end more of a character we can empathize with.

Roi plays more to Hermione’s victimhood than to her strength, but Angel Desai does a fine job as the queen’s lady-in-waiting Paulina.

I found Kandel more annoying than funny as Autolycus. Valley convinces as Polixenes and Kelsey and Kazan are fine as the young lovers.

The staging leaves a bit to be desired. Flowers sprouting from the floor downstage, the use of an 8-track tape of the Delphic oracle’s pronouncement of Hermione’s innocence, the use of three bears in response to the famous “exit pursued by a bear” stage direction all seem more Brechtian than magical.

It all works out in the end, and it’s good to see Shakespeare back inside at the Globe, despite my still unshaken conviction that this is not the Bard’s best effort.

The details

“The Winter’s Tale” plays through March 16 at The Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (619) 234-5623 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.